Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Christian Peace Bloggers

Fellow Louisvillian Michael Westmoreland-White of Levellers has started a new Blog-Ring for "Christian bloggers who care deeply about peacemaking," Christian Peace Bloggers. Following the leads of PamBG and Patrik, I've decided to join up, committing to post something on peace at least once a week.

That will be hard for me for more than a couple of reasons. First, I don't know what will happen with this blog when I start back to school - and I have orientation tomorrow! I'm sure that I won't be able to keep up my current pace of writing something (not all of it for this blog, however) every day. I just hope that I will find the time to do any writing in addition to my work for school.

Additionally, while I often preached on peace when I was both a Youth Minister and later a pastor, I have posted very little on the subject since leaving ministry and starting this blog. I'm not sure why. Mostly, I suppose, it is because I rarely plan out my topics in advance. I love the freedom of blogging - it keeps me from having to chart too tight a course. Whatever I am going through, whatever I am reading, whatever I happen to think of, whatever happens in the course of the day - this is what I post on. So, while I post on any number of diverse topics, really I am the topic here.

That said, I have on occasion written about the War in Iraq, including this post, which applies Just War Theory to both the arguments made in favor of the war and the facts of the war as it develops. I also posted a Christmas devotional, Prince of Peace, that explores cultivating personal peace in the hectic holiday season. Neither of those posts, however, amount to the sort of powerful rhetoric I had on peace from the pulpit.

I remember, for instance, a sermon that I gave just after my best friend returned from Iraq. Titled "Sowing the Seeds of Peace," it focused on the role of faith in cultivating both internal, personal peace, and just as importantly the corporate peace that should characterize Christian communities. It called on Christians to experience the peace that comes from God, to allow that peace to transform them, and then to be agents of peace in a world too often marred by violence. It saw cultivating peace as one of the most powerful expressions of the Christian faith.

This sermon was, in part, the product of my wrestling with my friend's letters from Iraq. After struggling to work his way through college, he decided to join the Marine Corp Reserves in part to relieve some of the financial pressures of trying to pay his own way through school. Of course, there was much more to his decision to join the Marines than just this, but one of the big factors was their promise to help pay for school. With that promise they have bought the loyalty of more than a few struggling young men, hoping to make a better life for themselves.

I remember seeing him right after he came home from boot camp - full of the pride that came from having remade his body and his mind. He was a fine-tuned precision instrument, in the best shape of his life, his self-esteem boosted from having survived rigors that he couldn't have imagined before he set off for Paris Island. His long hair shorn, his beard shaved off, and his body reformed, he glew with pride. The Marines gave him a self respect that no one could take away.

But, by the time he was shipped off the Iraq, he was a different person. His wife had left him, and left him semi-homeless. For a time he lived in my basement, before trying to start a new life in his native Arkansas, on the family farm that his parents had been so eager to leave. Still a reservist, he drove from Arkansas to Fort Knox, KY for his weekend drills, while using the money that the government had promised him to pay for some community college classes near his new home.

Just as he was getting settled in, just as he was beginning to reclaim the bright, promising life that almost died when his wife left, he was called up for active duty, shipped off to drive a tank in the first wave of our invasion of Iraq. Here is what he wrote to me from the ship that took him off to war:

... the guys all talk about killing ragheads. To them it's like a game, just another training exercise, except the targets are shooting back. The targets don't have names or faces or families or friends who love them and want them to come home. They're just part of the "evil regime" that must be overthrown. They're, many are, simply focused, with no thought to the why's and the wherefor's of what they are doing. They simply accept the propaganda against these people. To them, you either believe in what you're doing or you don't; you're either a patriot or you're not. There's no middle ground.

But it's not that easy. People die in this exercise. It's not a game. These people have homes and families and friends, just like we do, and, no matter how we try, no matter how good we are, the innocent will suffer as well. If we think we're doing them justice, might we be wrong? Might our efforts to bring down tyranny create, in the death, destitude, starvation and bitterness that ensues, a greater tyranny of its own?

Hell, I don't even know for sure why we're going. Some say it's to bring down a dictator. Some say it is to finish a war that never really ended. Some say it is to prevent a future, more terrible war. Some say it's for the oil and economy. Perhaps, to us, it's all these things. Perhaps we'll be heroes back home. Perhaps we'll never know.

I know one thing for sure. To the people we have come to "liberate," it's nothing but an invasion of their homes.

I could write more from that letter, post marked Jan. 21, 2003, but my heart breaks reading it now just as it broke reading it when it finally arrived in my mail box the first time. There was so much conflict in all the letters; the internal conflict of a man pulled between competing values, competing priorities. While he was off to war he spent his nights laying on the desert sand, reading Thomas Merton, remembering St. Francis, and contemplating what it means to live a life of faith. In his heart and mind, peace, love and compassion waged war with loyalty and duty. The letters he sent reflected a love and concern for his fellow soldiers. He feared for both their physical and moral state.

What kept him sane - as sane as a soldier can be - during the fighting was his bond with his comrades. He fought with them and for them rather than against anyone. His struggle was to ensure that his friends survived.

When he returned I heard his stories, and I saw the pain in his eyes. He was proud that he and so many of his companions survived. He was proud that he did his duty, and did it well. But there was a deep pain under all of that pride; a pain that reflected that perhaps he gave up too much of his soul just to ensure that his body survived.

That his story is not a tragedy speaks to the resiliency of his spirit, and the redeeming power of grace. He is now free and clear of his commitment to the military, living in Dayton, Ohio, and working on a very different front line. He now fights to reclaim the lives of urban teenagers, operating his own missionary youth ministry. He fights the violence of the streets with the grace and peace of the God who somehow brought him out of war a whole man.


Tyler Simons said...

What a remarkable letter that is. I sympathize with the anguish that it brings, but it brings me no small amount of hope to hear of such an empathetic, reflective man sacrificing something vitally important to himself for people like me, who probably don't deserve it, might not appreciate it, and certainly couldn't understand it.

... a pain that reflected that perhaps he gave up too much of his soul just to ensure that his body survived.

When the shit goes down, no doubt you're focused on ensuring the bodily survival of your self (and, of course, your buddies). I disagree, however, that the sacrifices any veteran makes are only for the sake of immediate survival. There's a beauty to fighting for one's folks that transcends the varying degrees of wrongness in the justification for the war itself.

Tyler Simons said...

You should read Born Fighting, by Jim Webb, newly elected Democratic Senator from Virginia (hell, yeah!). Webb's tribute to Scots-Irish culture, full of fierce warriors, passionate independence and resistance to distant authority does seem to be an important component of, like, America.

Webb and Westmoreland-White seem so far apart to me on issues like this. I have yet to come across a pacifist thinker who does the difficult work of looking for a redeemable element in the life of the soldier. Admittedly, I haven't looked very hard. Perhaps I'm too ready to slap on the sarcastic "beautiful soul" label and write off the peaceniks.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

"Webb and Westmoreland-White seem so far apart to me on issues like this." In fact, I understand Jim Webb very well, even when I don't always agree. I come from a long line of military folk on both sides. My father broke with his family's Army tradition and joined the Navy so that he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam (a war he believed to be wrong), but retired after serving 20 years.

I joined the Army and didn't become a conscientious objector or pacifist until 2 years into my hitch. Many of my fellow pacifists are ex-military--members of groups like Veterans for Peace.

Welcome to the Christian Peace Bloggers ring. I do want to make room for STRICT Just War Theorists (not those who use JWT to mask every war the nation wants to fight). I also urge JWTers to investigate the practices of Just Peacemaking--an ethic which brings together JWTers and pacifists around the shared practices of working for peace. Google my Levellers site for JPT or Just Peacemaking to find out more.

Welcome, again.

Sandalstraps said...


While Michael Westmorland-White has already answered you, I thought I'd do the same as well.

I haven't read a great deal of pacifist literature, having not yet made the jump into full-blown pacifism (more on that as this aspect of the blog develops), but I doubt that just because one holds that all forms of violence are morally unjustified, one also has to hold that soldiers are the primary moral agents in the violence of war.

In other words, I can at least imagine a pacifism that, rather than blaming soldiers for the violence of wars, has a great deal of sympathy for them. After all, while in our culture they now freely enlist, they are still, as my post tries to demonstrate, often coersed into enlistment. Then, after enlistment - whether the enlistment is seen as freely given or coersed - they are manipulated, mentally and physically reprogramed. From that moment on they make precious few free moral choices.

Perhaps most of the moral currency spent on the violence of war is spent by politicians, who too often hastily decide to engage in a war without first exhausting diplomatic options - and, in my book, it is very, very hard to exhaust diplomatic options.

As for my comment about the spending of one's soul to save one's body, I did not mean to imply, as you seem to take from it, "that the sacrifices any veteran makes are only for the sake of immediate survival." But, that is an exchange that is involved, and an important one. As the hopeful conclusion to the story indicates, my friend did not, in fact, sell his soul for survival, though there were times when he first came hope that the look in his eyes indicated that he might fear that he had done so.

Michael Westmorland-White,

Thanks for the project, and for the welcome.

While I think that pacifism is the approach to the morality of war and violence that is most easily compatible with the teachings of Jesus, I am not yet convinced that there are no circumstances under which violence is moral impermissible. The war between pacifism and just war theory, then, is one that is waged daily in my head.

That said, considering the moral justification - if any - for violence is, for me, only one small part of what the word "peace" entails. I hope fear to explore a concept of "peace" that is far more than just the absense of violence, whether or not I ultimately decide that violence is ever morally justifiable.

PamBG said...

Thank you for this contribution, Chris.

Here in the UK, we have a Sunday celebration called Remembrance Day - the Sunday nearest the 11th day of the 11th month when World War I ended. Considering the hardships that many people in the UK lived through in World War II, the risk is always that we end up worshipping "God is on the side of the British" on Remembrance Sunday.

There are still a number of people here who served in WWII; men in combat and women who were called up into civilian work. They are not the ones who complain when I gently preach that I can't find anywhere in the gospels where Jesus tells us that it's OK for nations to kill the citizens of other nations. If anyone complains about a message of peace, it's often sons and daughters of those who served or grandchildren. I have yet to have a man who actually saw combat complain.

Anonymous said...

All: I'm interested in whether we think that the debate between pacifists and "strict" just-war theorists is really about. What I mean is this: It's possible to defend a version of just-war theory whose conditions are in fact never fulfilled in practice. For instance, a standard tenet of JWT is that war should only be adopted as a means of last resort, yet one could argue that there are always alternative options. Another option: in JWT, the benefits of going to war are to be weighed against the inevitable horrors war visits on both military and civilian populations. One could then argue that the horrors of war always outweigh the benefits of waging war, even successfully. (I think that this strategy has some strong reasons in its favor.)

On such an understanding of JWT, war is in principle justifiable, but in point of fact unjustifiable. That would make one's position on war work like the Vatican's position on capital punishment: on their view, capital punishment is (a) justifiable if it is demonstrably the only means to achieve the ends of justice, but (b) is in point of fact never the only way to achieve just ends.

Such a strict version of JWT would be conceptually distinct from pacifism. In practice, though, it would yield all of the same conclusions (just for different reasons). If this is the case, do we think that the distinction between pacifism and strict JWT makes a difference?

PamBG said...

I think that my view is that war is a sin but that sometimes it may be necessary to sin as a last resort.

Following on from an idea proposed by people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cornelius Pantinga, Miroslav Volf and James Alison, sometimes those of us who consider ourselves Christians have to tolerate a sense of sin in ourselves and rest on the possibility of God's forgiveness.

For me, the problem with the "Just War" theory is that it attempts to theologically justify that there are circumstances in which God says that violence is not sinful. For me it is better and theologically clearer to think that, in a sinful world God will be merciful and forgiving to sinners who have no other alternative. This may seem like a fine line to some, but for me it is not.

Troy said...


you never disappoint. I've read several posts here, and it's good, again, to be back.

I haven't read much Watts, just The Book and that was some time ago, but I remember not digging him. Perhaps I need to take another look.

I would think that even while we say we cannot hold a genuine God-concept in our minds, that God is fully Other, there is truth in the icons, or truth for humans at least. Saying God is Love may be as good as we can get, though it is anthropomorphic, limited, and incomplete. Better: God told us to love...we'll get More later.

I love you man. Glad to see you are well. And keep working on that book. You have the drive.


Sandalstraps said...

What Just War Theory seeks to do is to articulate the circumstances under which violence is morally justifiable. It need not say, as Pam does, that the violence involved in even a "just" and "limited" act, fails in any way to participate in sin. It need only say that such an act, motivated by such a cause, and engaged in such a limited way, is the least wrong thing.

It seeks, in other words, to minimize the harm in an already harmful situation. In doing so - and this is where I think its greatest strength lies - it is able to make distinctions between kinds of violence. It can, in other words, underneath the absolute judgment that all violence constitutes a kind of harm, still make relative judgments about various kinds of violence.

For more on that, see the discussion that followed this post. That post itself should give a pretty full description of what I think the Just War Theory, as I understand it, says about the potential permissibility of any violent act. However, for the interests of this discussion, I'll sum it up here.

Just War Theory, as I understand it (and there are many, many forms, not all of which say what I am saying), says that in order to be morally justified an act of violence must:

1.) be motivated by a just cause, and

2.) be limited in its scope and nature.

We can have a discussion about what, exactly, it means to say that a cause is just. And, of course, we can similarly have a discussion about what it means to say that one's conduct is limited. But, at a bare minimum, it means that a violent act must be defensive rather than offensive in nature (that is, a reponse to an act of aggressive violence rather than an act of aggressive violence itself, no matter what provoked the original act) and that the defensive violence involved must be the least restrictive force necessary to accomplish the goal, which should be at least the end of the original act(s) of violence.

There is, of course, a great deal more involved than this, but these are some preliminary considerations.

PamBG said...

I'm finding it hard to express what I want to say. I'm just going to be very simple.

I think that Jesus told us that God requires us to choose non-violent resistence in all areas of conflict; to do any less than this is wrong and is a sin.

In a pragmatic world, however, I can understand why someone would choose to violently defend themselves and their loved ones. I guess, technically, I think this is the "least sin" although I have a great deal more sympathy for the situation than that.

The problem with choosing the least worst moral option is that regularly we convince ourselves that our violence is morally and ethically justified. In practice (as anyone who believes in original sin could predict) violence is humanity's tool of choice for settling disputes rather than a "once in 500 years" occurance.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Brian, I have known those JWTers who have become "functional pacifists" because they believe its conditions cannot be met "in the modern world," etc. But I'm not restricting membership in this blog ring so tightly.

The question of last resort does bring up the question of what "resorts" should be tried first. That gets to the new ethic (endorsed by many pacifists and JWTers) of Just Peacemaking. See my series on that on my blog.

I have also just blogged today on whether the court martial of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada raises questions for JWT in the specific U.S. context. To wit, if one is never allowed to bring up the question of a war or order's legality, what happens to the distinction between lawful and unlawful orders?

Anonymous said...

Michael-- I understand that you aren't wanting to restrict discussion in the blog ring to those who are pacifists or functional pacifists. My question was a bit more theoretical than that, I guess.

PamBG, I am torn between your point of view and the traditional just war point of view Sandalstraps brings to the table, which is what motivated my question, I suppose. I agree with Sandalstraps that theories of just war are an attempt to give us a way of deciding the least bad of a set of bad options, rather than to give positive moral guidance. Your point seems to be-- please correct me if I'm wrong-- that if JWT concludes that sometimes the least bad option is organized violence, then its embedded principle that we should opt for the least bad of a bad set of options is contrary to Christian teaching. This is so because we are encouraged as Christians to view all acts of violence and aggression as possessing an inherent sinfulness that no set of moral reasons or exigent circumstances can eliminate.

Part of what's at stake here, it seems to me, is whether our consciences are up to the task of deciding issues like this. My instincts and training as a philosopher lead me to think that they are-- or at least that they have to be, because no one else is going to decide them for us. But maybe I'm wrong about that.