Nonviolence after September 11?

[1] After the Gulf war, God dragged me kicking and screaming from an ambivalent absolute pacifism to an equally conflicted “realistic pacifism” something like that advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Even before September 11, my pacifism had become so “realistic” as to allow that military action in response to a terrorist assault might be morally justifiable – indeed, obligatory – if conducted according to constraints of just war tradition. I find myself compelled to agree with those who believe that if no preemptive military campaign is undertaken to defend citizens from the aggression of agencies that have no intention of attempting to bring about a just peace, then other catastrophically destructive attacks are likely to follow. Failure to mount such a defensive effort would in all likelihood constitute a betrayal of love’s duty to protect innocent life.

[2] Then is not my self-description as a realistic Christian pacifist little more than pitiful self-deception? How can I maintain that I am committed to nonviolence in any meaningful sense after September 11, if I am willing to grant even narrowly circumscribed moral legitimacy to the counter-terrorism “war” presently unfolding?

[3] My answer is that nonviolence remains essential to the Christian life. Grasped by the peace of God, the Christian life embraces nonviolence as its default posture in bearing witness to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ – and departs from that stance only with the greatest reluctance, if at all. The term “nonviolence” serves both as a critical principle to unmask the inveterate delusions through which we all too easily justify acting out our innate violence in contravention of God’s command; and as a heuristic symbol through which the Holy Spirit may disclose to us the promise and power of God’s peaceable sovereignty, which Martin King called “the beloved community.” To the extent that discourses and practices of nonviolence serve God’s word in these ways, they are indispensable to the authentic exercise of Christian freedom under circumstances either pushing us toward the Scylla of vengeance and retaliation or sucking us into the Charybdis of resignation and despair.

[4] Faith is the heart of nonviolence, as for any expression of the Christian life. Faith, as Luther says, is that “spiritual power” which “rules in the midst of enemies and is powerful in the midst of oppression.” Faith alone grasps the promise that lies at the heart of nonviolence: that we have been granted participation in a reality alternative to the world’s enmity and contempt, the design of God’s love to gather all things together in Christ. Faith alone bestows the gift that Martin King called “blessed freedom,” a setting-free from sin and its demonic powers of hatred and violence so that one may choose nonviolent obedience to the command of God’s love which orders this alternative reality. Nonviolence, then, points us to symbols, principles, and values through which God discloses to us the very heart of the Christian life.

[5] Nonviolence challenges us to take God’s command seriously as the word that definitively shapes our Christian freedom. A commitment to nonviolence means doggedly to remember that faith’s freedom is always an opportunity for love’s obedience to embody respect for the other, seeking even the enemy-neighbor’s good by working to create and preserve community. The discourses and practices of nonviolence train us to honor the teaching of the ELCA social statement “For Peace in God’s World,” that war and all recourse to violence in self-defense is truly the option of last resort. A commitment to nonviolence helps us to embody the spirit of Luther’s commentary on the fifth commandment: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all life’s needs.”

[6] God’s love may drive us in the end to deploy military force to protect our neighbors. But a commitment to nonviolence helps to evaluate critically the legitimacy of all arguments that claim to justify the military option. What distinguishes the deadly force necessary to protect innocent life and secure civil order from the deadly force necessary to secure US global hegemony and protect its business interests? It is not always easy to tell. A realistic nonviolence that spares no effort to resist evil in ways that refrain from using deadly force, authorizing the military option only when all other avenues have been exhausted, serves as a check upon our own sinful pretensions and self-deceptions. Nonviolence challenges us not to mistake the demands of our own unfettered appetites for the requirements of God’s infinite justice.

[7] Some understand the Christian vocation to peacemaking after September 11 as a strenuous effort to restrain the evil of alien aggressors, and to influence them so that they accept the ideals and norms of the civilized family of nations. Such efforts may be necessary, but not sufficient to describe peacemaking’s task of countering and transforming attitudes that encourage violence. To focus solely on these elements of peacemaking may prevent us from seeing something else equally basic: the urgency of countering and transforming the violence dwelling in our own hearts and embodied in the policies we support. If peacemaking’s task is to drain the swamp of terrorism, then we must recognize that our own feet are mired in the same morass of terror and violence.

[8] The discourses and practices of nonviolence alert us to our complicity in the very things we condemn in others. The indiscriminate attack on noncombatants witnessed on September 11 is certainly evil and morally unjustifiable. The same can be said – and has frequently been said – about US support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and US sanctions against Iraq. In both cases, American Christians accept, justify, and cooperate with blatantly immoral practices resulting in indiscriminate impoverishment, injury, degradation, and death of noncombatants. These practices engender humiliation, despair, rage, and enmity among millions in the Islamic world. These are not the things that make for peace; but often we have difficulty recognizing that. A realistic nonviolence enables American Christians accurately to see the fruits of their work with the eyes of the oppressed who have been its victims – and so come to understand ourselves as sinners in need of God’s paradoxical righteousness to make us just.

[9] A realistic commitment to nonviolence lets us listen to Luther with new ears: Christian freedom bound to serve the neighbor – either nonviolently, or violently in exceptional instances – begins love’s task with self-discipline. And this means not just the discipline required to field the greatest military force known in all of history. At the level of personal spirituality and ecclesial practice, it means primarily to discipline ourselves so that our flesh will conform to the Spirit and the gift of faith the Spirit imparts, so as not to revolt against faith and hinder the new creation God works in each and all as we are remade in the image of Christ. The self-discipline demanded by God’s gift of blessed freedom means first of all to restrain our evil desires for glory, rule, power, and authority, so that we may really serve the neighbor instead of serving ourselves under the guise of serving our neighbor. The discourses and practices of nonviolence play a crucial role in this task of recognizing and restraining the innate violence that so often hinders us from our Christian vocation of proving neighbor to others.

[10] Finally, the self-discipline of nonviolence extends to the level of political will and public policy. To transform attitudes that encourage violence in us and among us demands enormous collective commitment and self-discipline. Lost amid the present call for military preparedness and homeland security is the point John Howard Yoder cogently made years ago: that for peacemaking according to just-war principles to be credible, there must be an extensive and sustained investment of financial and human resources in nonviolent strategies to secure a just peace. Otherwise just-war criteria are hollow and the call to follow them hypocritical. What is supposed to be a last resort – military violence – becomes the first and only resort, because no nonmilitary avenues to peace have been cultivated as seriously as our preparation for war.

[11] What happens, though, when military means cannot morally or practically defend innocent life and other values we cherish? That exigency may now force itself upon us as we contemplate life with anthrax, smallpox, and occasional atomic blasts peering at us from just above history’s horizon. As Martin King once said, the choice that still confronts us is either nonviolence or nonexistence. If just peace cannot be secured by just-war thinking, perhaps this is God’s strange way of leading us into a greater truth. A realistic nonviolence that seriously works for peace by sparing no effort to build just and reconciling community in every nation and across the globe, that builds realistic, multilateral institutional and practical alternatives to warfare before turning to it as an utterly final resort, may in the end be the best we can do as Christians responding to the gift and task of God’s encompassing love.