Part I. Theses on Christian Pacifism

  1. Before Christians can begin reflecting on September 11, we must be clear about the meaning of Christian identity. The most important question is what "story" or narrative describes the lives we ought to live. Many "American" Christians uncritically combine their Christian identity and "American" identity. Their political position can be described with the sentence: "America was unjustifiably attacked, and we need to respond with violent force." The identity of the "we" is ambiguous. It is an "American" "we" that lacks clarity about what difference it makes for "Christians" to do moral reflection on politics. "American" Christians need a richer biblical narrative to define their identity, one which makes central to their identity the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Cross" and "flag" represent symbols of competing loyalties. Many Christians have confused these two identities since Constantine. This is not to say that there are not also overlapping values between these symbols. It is just that since September 11 it is evident that many American Christians lack the tools to discriminate how these symbols also compete with each other. This is due, I think, to an inadequate Christology, which moves me to my second thesis.1
  2. Christians need an orienting center for their lives and a guide for practice that is grounded in a rich, thick description of Jesus Christ: his life, teaching, example, death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is God's anointed one (Messiah), commissioned to bring God's kingdom or rule into the world. The kingdom of God represents the wholeness God intends for the entire cosmos. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God might come on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10). The kingdom entails liberation from bondage to powers that are destructive of life. One vivid story of this transformation is Zacchaeus's encounter with Jesus. His repentance turned his life in a different direction that led to the redistribution of his wealth. He is liberated to become a person who practices justice by a redistribution of his resources to those in need. This brings salvation to his house today, not some distant future. Jesus identifies with or stands in solidarity with the marginalized. Those treated as outcasts in the social context of Jesus' time were the very ones for whom Jesus had compassion (poor, widows, sick, Samaritans, women, those labeled "sinners.") Jesus' call to "seek first God's kingdom and God's righteousness" (Matthew 6:33) "means the restoring of just relations among us personally and societally, and with God. It points to God's gracious initiative in delivering us from sin, guilt, and oppression into a new community of justice, peace and freedom and our obedient participation in God's way of deliverance.”2 Jesus offers a model, both in his own life and in his teachings, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, of how to confront evil nonviolently. Instead of legitimating the dominant culture's view that pathological evil must finally be confronted with violence, Jesus offers a creative third way, an alternative to the use of violent force and passive resignation to evil. A follower of Jesus is committed to a pilgrimage of seeking concrete initiatives within the culture where we live that can creatively transform conditions of injustice and violence into occasions of justice and peace.3
  3. Christians need a Christology that integrally links Christ to politics. Many Christologies define Christ in ways that make Him irrelevant to politics.4 We need a Christology that can provide a vivid picture of a Christ who is not disembodied from cultural formation, but who is concrete enough to provide leverage for assessing how we should engage the particularities of culture. The Christology of many Christians conveniently relegates Jesus to a "separate" sphere of life (the spiritual) or to the afterlife as an answer to their special concern about eternal life. Jesus is disconnected from culture, from living life responsibly before God in the world. When Christ is relegated to the "spiritual" or salvation deferred beyond the grave, Christians tend uncritically to legitimate the dominant political and economic system, since Jesus is defined as "acultural" and therefore irrelevant to culture. As a consequence, Christians derive their norms for the engagement of political issues from norms borrowed from the general culture. The creative contribution Christians can make to the larger culture "to seek the peace of the city where they dwell" is lost because Christians are absorbed into the assumptions of the prevailing culture which assumes the use of violent force is the only way to establish a secure and peaceful world.5
  4. The church is called by God to be a people among the nations. The center of history is not empire (Babylon, Rome, Germany, the United States), but a people God has chosen from among the nations to be a light to all the peoples of the world. The church should have a cosmopolitan vision, not a provincial view of life linked to Western or American interest. There is a fundamental continuity in the central story of the Bible beginning with God's call to Abraham to leave country and kindred to be a "blessing to the nations" and the call of God's anointed, Jesus, to be a light to the world. The good news of God's love cannot be seen or heard by Muslims when the church's mission in the world is linked with the imperial power of the United States, when God's blessing is linked with the terror of American military power in Afghanistan, the support of Israeli military occupation, or a plan to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The church in the West is called to be a nonviolent "Christian" presence in the world, to work in behalf of the poor and oppressed in concert with the churches in the Middle East in countries like Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. Like the crusades, the church's support for the U.S. military effort is a setback to Christian mission, a contradiction to the heart of the Christian Gospel that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." (John 3:16f)
  5. A biblically and theologically grounded pacifism regards seeking justice as central and integral to a nonviolent philosophy of life. The last fifty years have seen a radical transformation in the understanding of the integral relationship of justice and nonviolence in a biblically and theologically based pacifism. The reigning paradigm of fifty years ago of traditional Mennonite nonresistance and Reinhold Niebuhr's view of non-resistance as passive withdrawal from politics has been completely reassessed. The old view that to follow Jesus entails an apolitical quietistic withdrawal from society has been transformed by active nonviolent peacemaking grounded in a political Jesus who engages the principalities and powers. It is not possible here to trace the process of this transformation except to say that it has been mutually shaped and reinforced from two sides: by the practice of nonviolent peacemaking and social transformation (Gandhi, King, churches engaged in social action), and by biblical and theological reflection.6 The vision of justice I endorse is holistic and social. It should be distinguished from the narrative tradition of justice rooted primarily in Lockean and Enlightenment views that emphasize individual autonomy and freedom, the protection of private property, and the right to exploit the environment, and narrow views of human rights as primarily the protection of individual liberties like freedom of speech and association. It is this view of justice that Stanley Hauerwas often critiques as if this were the only view of justice. The biblical tradition of covenant justice with its emphasis upon social solidarity and its holistic vision of salvation is carried on more adequately in Catholic traditions of social responsibility, in early free-church Puritan traditions of religious liberty and covenant responsibility, in some secular versions of democratic socialism, and in comprehensive visions of human rights that include political, economic, cultural, and environmental considerations.7
  6. The use of violent force as a "last resort" to secure justice creates conditions that inhibit the achievement of justice. Too often we work under the false assumption that, if we cannot find a nonviolent solution to a conflict, the use of violent force will take care of the problem. The following statement is typical of the reasoning of most Christians. "War may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and limit even great evils." The problem is that this "exception" tends to become the rule for three reasons. A. Because we must be prepared for the exception, enormous intellectual and economic resources are committed to preparing for that possibility. With regard to the church, once it has granted the "exception," it has morally compromised itself so much that it lacks the moral leverage to resist the preparation for war. Implicitly the church has accepted the assumption that war is inevitable, and since it is inevitable, we must support the preparation for that possibility. B. "Last resort" thinking cuts short imaginative thinking and creative action to find alternative ways to make peace. It is easy to become lazy in our thinking, simply to mouth the platitudes of policy makers "that there was nothing else we could do" -- that we either had to engage in the use of violent force or let things continue as they are (do nothing). C. "Last resort" use of force continues rather than breaks the cycle of violence. It reinforces the concentrations of power in the hands of those who have the money and resources to secure these weapons, and undermines the very democratic structures of civil society that are one of the key factors in the prevention of war.8
  7. Though both pacifist and just war advocates seek justice, both traditions cannot guarantee that justice can be accomplished. Both traditions should make more modest claims about their ability to guarantee success. Both traditions involve faith visions about how to "secure" a future in which justice is more likely to be achieved. The pacifist commitment to nonviolence is ultimately grounded in an eschatology of trust in the victory over evil of the nonviolent God revealed in Jesus' life and teachings, death and resurrection. Both the claims of just war theorists to secure justice through the "last resort" of armed force and the pacifist claim to secure justice through nonviolence must guard against the arrogance of exaggerated claims. Both positions ultimately rely on an "eschatology" of some vision about the future and how we get there. Neither position can guarantee success. In fact, some conflicts may yield to no available human solution that we can figure out in the short run. When societies have been addicted to hatred and violence for so long, we may not be able to avoid tragic violence and suffering. As with persons who get lung cancer from smoking all their lives, no immediate solution can save them from death. God does not prevent the tragedy or the judgment that humans suffer as a consequence of sinful choices. Christians, however, are not fatalistic. They rather live by an alternative hope grounded in the conviction that the Lamb who was Slain is ultimately the One who is Lord of History. It is a vision of the nonviolent cross as the way God chooses to overcome evil.9
  8. In a book I wrote in 1986, I defined the brand of Christian pacifism I am describing here as "realist" pacifism.10 By that I mean a pacifism in a twofold sense: A. pacifism that is political and culturally engaged; and B. a pacifism that takes seriously the nature of human sinfulness. I want to distinguish the biblical pacifism I am setting out here from liberal pacifism earlier in this century which often lacked realism because it was based on naive and optimistic assumptions about human nature and human institutions. We need to "name" the principalities and powers. We need to be realistic about egoistic self-interest, pride and self-aggrandizement, the masking of evil behind high and mighty sounding moral categories which divides the world between the good (our side), and the evil (their side). We need to "unmask" the flaws in our own behavior and institutions, and acknowledge our need for repentance. I want to say emphatically that no amount of "sin" of our own nation can justify the attacks of September 11. Yet we must also say that America cannot wash its hands of what happened to us: our callous indifference to Afghanistan when we abandoned their war torn country after they had served our self-interest in our struggle (with help from Osama bin Laden) with the Soviet Union; the narrow self-interest which led to the support of Saddam Hussein against Iran in a war that killed a half million persons on each side, arms we supplied which then were turned against Kuwait; our calculating self-interest in the Gulf War to protect our "thirst" for oil, and the ensuing hostility among many Saudi Arabians for placing American troops on their soil. One cannot begin to name all the issues surrounding our unbalanced policy with regard to Israel/Palestine. America is the most powerful military force in world history, which (since the demise of the Soviet Union) is unchecked by any other power in the world. We live in an extremely dangerous time, not just because of the threat of terrorism, but because of the dangers of unchecked American power in the world, and because of our own pride, arrogance, and indifference to the interests and needs of the rest of the world.
  9. In the light of the above considerations, Christians are called to be culturally engaged in nonviolent processes that move in the direction of just peacemaking. The "just peacemaking" model which Glen Stassen will outline on our panel is fully consistent with my understanding of Christian pacifism. It is an extension of the Christian pacifist commitment to "make peace" nonviolently in ways that are politically relevant and practical. I will not spell out these practices here, except to say that they fall into three general categories: A. Concrete initiatives that introduce into the political process practices that break the cycles of violence and move parties in conflict toward the peaceful resolution of conflict; B. Practices that address injustice, foster communities that support human rights in a broad sense (economic, political, cultural), and further just and sustainable development that is compatible with regard for the larger earth community that sustains life on planet earth;11 and C. Practices that enhance cooperative forces in the international system, strengthen international institutions such as the United Nations and international courts, and build grass roots peacemaking groups in civil society that link people across cultural and national boundaries (INGO's and NGO's).12
  10. Christians are called to "witness" to the powers that be, in the light of the framework I have outlined above. This witness needs to take into account the function of governmental authorities to protect the good and restrain evil (Romans 13). The sword symbolizes the judicial authority of government. The "sword" function of government does not necessarily mean the approval of particular applications of the use of force such as war or capital punishment. Paul's claim in Romans is that nothing in the world, including the "sword," falls outside of God's providential ordering. Even the freely chosen wrath of people can work to serve God's purposes in the universe, even though God does not approve of wrathful behavior. For instance, by crucifying Jesus, Pilate unwittingly served God's cause of human salvation. In our contemporary world the use of violent force to solve problems is paradoxical. While it may provide some limited kind of order or accomplish limited short-range goals, the resort to armed force, even in defense of just causes and for the sake of order, perpetuates the cycle of violence. A Christian witness to governmental authority, then, will be founded on two principles: A. a vision or model of the good society that grows out of a vision of the Kingdom of God and its embodiment in the church (nonviolence and justice); and B. a commitment to a process of analogical thinking that draws norms from that vision for how institutions (government) beyond the church (where the "sword" is operative and assumed) might work and be structured.13
  11. It is within the framework of this second point that I find just war categories to be useful as a set of guidelines for governments who do not start with the presuppositions of Christian pacifism. As a Christian pacifist I use the categories of just war reasoning to critically reflect on U.S. policy. Is there a just cause, is the use of violent force a last resort, are the aims of the war clearly stated to one's opponent and does the opponent know what to do to prevent war, is there a likelihood of success, is the war conducted under the auspices of a legitimate authority, does the overall good outweigh the evil that is likely to result from war, and are the principles of noncombatant immunity being protected? In the case of the response to September 11, I have come to the conclusion that only two (at the most) of the categories of just war can be met.14 What I observe is a wide disparity of viewpoints among Christians who use just war categories. I think the differences here are determined by complex factors (e.g. how one interprets the "facts"), and by the narrative framework within which just war categories are used. If just war categories are utilized within the framework of "American" identity and U.S. self-interest, then it is much easier to justify the use of violent force. If, however, just war is viewed within the context of central themes in the Christian narrative which I set out above, then there is a much more stringent "burden of proof" that is applied by Christians and there is much more agonizing struggle with whether this war against terrorism can be justified.

Part II: Practical Responses to September 11 in the Light of Christian Pacifism

I. The Church as Actor within the International System

  1. What is the meaning and form of a North American Christian witness and presence within the Muslim world? The Mennonite Central Committee, for example, has workers and programs in countries such as: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan, and Nigeria. The central principles that define this involvement are: 1. How does the church with integrity partner effectively with local churches (where possible) to strengthen a ministry of peace and justice;15 and 2. how do these involvements support structures and process to meet basic human needs?16
  2. It is in this context that workers in these settings provide "credible" witness to government (through the help of the MCC Ottawa and Washington Offices) about the conditions especially of the poor and the marginal, and what the impact of government policies are on the people in the countries where the church is working. For example, the church has become involved in advocacy to lift sanctions on Iraq, and has been a voice in witnessing to the devastating impact of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people.
  3. Thirdly, these workers and this presence provides a "window to the world" for churches in North America (an alternative view of the world to counter the provincialism of most North American media who are focused almost exclusively on U.S. government policy and the self-interest of the United States). A different perspective that informs voters is also a source for letters to editors of newspapers, and letters to government officials. I can personally testify to the value of regular e-mail reports from the country directors in Israel/Palestine that often includes excellent articles from the Palestinian and Israeli press that are not available in the North American media.
  4. At a fourth level, Christian Peacemaker Teams can provide a nonviolent presence in the middle of conflict. In their role in Hebron on the West Bank, Western observers can serve as a "moderating" force and a source of "on the ground" news for the outside world.

II. An Alternative Witness to Government

The church's presence and witness to an alternative vision of peace and justice is the context for analysis and reflection on U. S. foreign policy. The basic question is how U.S. policy can address the fundamental conditions of life that affect the marginal and poor (the "least of these" with whom the church works). Out of this "presence" one can identify several principles in the witness concerning U.S. foreign policy.

  1. The church will support a shift from massive military spending (e.g. utopian schemes like an anti-missile defense system) to greater emphasis on aid and economic development. It will urge the U.S. government to dramatically increase humanitarian aid to refugees in zones of conflict. War orphans, refugee children, and youth are especially vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations.
  2. The church will urge that support for the United Nations and international treaties and institutions (e.g. International Criminal Court, Kyoto Treaty, ABM Treaty) be strengthened. In general the church should encourage the United States to become a member of the community of nations rather than acting unilaterally as the only super power in the world. The United States is perceived in much of the world as the "bully" on the block, and the more the U.S. acts like a bully, the more it invites terrorism, the very thing bullying is supposed to stop.
  3. The church will support an international ban on the sale and transfer of weapons to zones of conflict. Weapons sales and transfers increase acts of violence, suffering, and the collapse of civil society institutions. The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of weapons. It should not export weapons to regimes that are undemocratic and violate human rights. At one point the United States supplied arms to Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran, only to have those very arms used in the invasion of Kuwait and then in the Persian Gulf War.

III. The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

In the light of the specific Christian presence in the middle of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, in the partnership of Western Christians and Middle East Christians, we can together identify as one of the root causes of terrorism the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict. U.S. policy has serious defects. The United States must develop a more balanced policy toward the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel and the U.S. missed an opportunity to move in the direction of a two state solution. For a period of several years after the PLO had recognized Israel, there was almost no violence against Israel. For example, I was in Israel/Palestine in January of 2000 for a month long seminar and there were no incidents of violence for the entire month. However, the underlying conditions of the military occupation were not being addressed. Israel continued to build settlements, luxury hotels in Palestinian East Jerusalem, and the infrastructure of roads to support settlements. I saw new roads through Palestinian farmlands, bulldozed homes in the way, and settlements encroaching on Palestinian lands. Water shortages were being experienced by Palestinians. Israel continued to drag its feet in withdrawing from the territories. Palestinians were not empowered to develop a viable state with contiguous areas under their control. The Palestinian areas under their control were isolated and separated from each other within a larger geographical area totally under the control of the Israelis. Pressure was building; the Palestinians were increasingly frustrated. Sharon lit the fuse with his incursion into the Al Aqsa Mosque area in September of 2000, and then blamed the Palestinian Authority for the problem. As of this writing in the fall of 2002, the infrastructure for a Palestinian state has been completely destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. In the meantime, while the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is not being addressed, President Bush is diverting our attention to Iraq, and is on the brink of a war that will simply add to the host of problems that already plague the Middle East.

IV. Alternative Responses to September 11

With respect to the direct response to September 11, the church's counsel to government should be to respond with the least amount of violence possible. However, the United States did not view war as a last resort, but almost immediately began after September 11 to use the rhetoric of war as if that were the only alternative. What were the alternatives to war?

On September 11, Mary Robinson, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the terrorist attacks were "a crime against humanity." This is a technical term in international law for a criminal act and not an undertaking of war. This language was suppressed by the United Nations and the United States. However, if this language would have prevailed, it would have triggered a very different response. It would have mobilized law enforcement agencies around the world to investigate, apprehend, and bring to justice those responsible to the full extent of U.S. and international law. Immediately in the aftermath of September 11, the world in general was outraged, but we failed to mobilize the goodwill of the world (including the Muslim world) in generating the support to pinpoint those responsible and bring them to trial (with Muslim jurists participating). The rhetoric of war and the crusading language of President Bush of good vs. evil, however, soon polarized the world, and we lost an opportunity for a less violent approach to the problem. The following typology distinguishes the importance of "how we name" what happened in the terrorist attack of September 11, and what type of response follows from how we name the event.

Naming what happened and how we respond17

CrimeWar
1. A horrendous crime against humanity 1. An attack on America and its identity
2. We "name" the act as an immoral act; against international law; Potential for international support 2. We accept the terms of the terrorists who name it as an attack against America
3. Emphasis upon justice; identify the perpetrators, arrest them, bring them to trial 3. Emphasis upon retaliation; seeking vengeance
4. Under rule of law; open to public scrutiny 4. National vigilantism; subject to rules of war (secret; use of propaganda to mobilize public)
5. Pinpoint the doers of the crime and direct anger to bringing them to justice; principle of non-combatant immunity 5. War inevitably causes civilian casualties; we create new victims; families who lose loved ones; we become like the evil we deplore
6. Focuses on causes; search for motives of the crime. Why do people hate us? Are we partly responsible? (Roots in Gulf War?) Can we stop the cycle of violence/counter violence? Requires us to look at history. 6. Perpetuates the cycle of violence. Danger of breeding more anger and hatred. Creates more terrorists.
7. Requires long range thinking; careful reflection; patience 7. Tends toward short range actions that may make us feel good, but do not address causes

V. Conclusion

We must acknowledge that all of us face tough questions that do not have easy answers. How do we prevent terrorism? What are the underlying causes and how do we address these causes? How do we address the immediate threat of terrorism without fostering more terrorism through our own violence and humiliation of others? How do we hold those accountable who commit acts of terrorism? How do pacifists address questions of just policing: the identification, arrest, trial, punishment, and restoration of persons who commit acts of terrorism? Yes, I have added the word, "restoration." For surely a Christian response to terrorism is other than punishment and death. A Christian response ultimately grows out of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ whose gift of love is given to all persons (terrorists included). All have sinned and fallen short of God's image in whom we were created.