From Fancis Spufford’s essay, “The Past as Zombie Hazard, and Consolation”:
Take the newly revivified rituals surrounding the commemoration of the British war dead. As someone who was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was an undramatic commonplace that most of the older men you passed in the street were veterans of the Second World War, I remember Remembrance Day being scarcely celebrated. There were far fewer poppies, the two minutes’ silence was something you could read about in school history books, and there was a general sense of the world wars receding, in time with the receding of private memories of them. Now (not coincidentally) that the First World War has entirely passed out of living memory, and the Second World War nearly has, we memorialise the wars like crazy, in a profusion of public forms. Larger crowds gather round war memorials to people we don’t (individually) remember than did in the decades when the British Legion stood there in their berets, mourning remembered, specific friends and comrades. The new wars of New Labour provide part of the cause, giving us new dead to mourn, and new Heroes to be Helped, with a corresponding need to find ways to honour sacrifice irrespective of the new wars’ justifications. For this, the First World War can provide a useful context. But most people these days standing serious-faced on 11 November wearing their poppies don’t know any currently serving soldiers either. They’re there to do some imaginative business on their own account. They’re there to participate in a symbolic performance of national continuity, centred round the armed forces as the institution in some ways least corroded by our scepticism. They’re there to assert that they are joined to previous generations’ story of collective sacrifice: despite the fact – because of the fact – that little in their daily experience bears it out.
Your Correspondent, Supports just about any prejudice you can mention but your hero-phobia disgusts him
I am a Christian who is committed to non-violence. This is not unusual, historically speaking. After all, the first few centuries of Christians were notable for their staunch refusal to kill people, even for the best possible reasons.
I am also a Christian who is training to be a church leader in a context where my denomination is almost entirely committed to supporting the military. What I mean by that is that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland appoints military chaplains to both front-line and reserve forces and it wholeheartedly endorses the martial acts of remembrance that are conducted in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland every November. Here’s the current cover of our denomination’s magazine:
Now as these things go, this is pretty reserved. It’s not pinning a poppy on a freaking puppet. But I could draw on countless sources to show, conclusively, that uncritical engagements with military imagery contributes towards willingness to engage in military conflict. Examples: Here and here and failing everything else, if that is too academic, consider the films we watch and the games we play and the books we read.
If and when any church decides to call me to be their minister, if they want to acknowledge the tragic and horrendous loss of life involved in war, I will suggest a repentance service is more appropriate than a remembrance service. But I will also suggest that we agree that I go on holiday on the 2nd weekend of November. That’s what I currently do, living in Britain. Tomorrow morning my wife and I will eat breakfast and drink coffee and instead of going to church to sing God Save the Queen and uncritically allow Mars into the community of the Prince of Peace, we will read Isaiah 11 and pray that Barack Obama, Donald Drumpf, Vladimir Putin or Theresa May never decide to kill anyone (else again).
I can’t partake in Remembrance. Not because I don’t value the lives of the young men that died in Britain’s wars, but because I do. I cannot reconcile the uncritical embrace of our ability to end life with the voices of the men who died in the trenches. They warned us of the hollow hell that hides behind noble words. Dulce et decorum est and all that. More than that, the engagement in sombre remembrance choreographed by the state that sent those men to die for no good reason stops us from seriously considering how the recent wars were fought for no good reason. The sepia tinted nostalgia for the Somme and the heroic stand against fascism in the 2nd World War obscures how Britain has recently engaged in two horrendous, unlawful, unnecessary, utterly pointless wars and that they are currently supporting a secret war in Yemen. Presbyterians don’t gamble, but I would make a killing if I could bet that Yemen won’t be mentioned in any Presbyterian church on the island of Ireland tomorrow.
So I hope that my commitments to non-violence – which means I preach unambiguously against abortion and the death penalty, against direct provision and against torture, but also against all collusion with the martial power of the nation state – will not hinder a church from calling me as a minister in the future. After all, if I can cite Tertullian and Ireneaus, Hippolytus and Cyprian, Menno and George Fox, Dorothy Day and Jacques Ellul as my allies, surely I can still be considered a safe, orthodox pair of hands? Yet I fear that the time is coming where my refusal to do Remembrance services would mean that congregations would refuse me as their minister. It is becoming part of the Gospel.
If I was forced, I would be able to preach on Remembrance Sunday. I would do it in the following way. I would set my text as Romans 13, which is the definitive text in the New Testament that argues that we must respect the state. But I would focus on verse 8:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
And then I would describe the Predator UAV. Each one costs just over $4 million. It is a remote controlled drone. It can fly 400 miles to a target and then hang in the air for 14 hours. It carries 2 hellfire missiles. It is almost 50 feet wide, but its camera is precise enough to identify human faces.
I would emphasise: this is how we fight war today. We see without being seen. We fire missiles from hundreds of miles away or we send flying robots to kill. Let us remember this. We say the men who died on the Somme died to make our freedom possible? This is what we do with our freedom. The Americans use the Predator. The Brits use Reapers. The names reveal much. But the particular models don’t matter. What we do is what matters. We are in debt, because we cause death. We are in debt because we have not loved one another.
Then I would step out of the pulpit and pray that come Monday, I’d still have a job.
That such a concern is increasingly real reveals the Babylonian captivity of the church to the age in which we live.
I am not bolshy. I am convinced that our failure to stand at a distance from our culture on issues like the poppy and Remembrance is directly connected to the failure of Christian witness on these islands. “Gay cakes” aren’t the obstacle hindering the Gospel. Hollow Christian religiosity is. The church has been deaf to the threat posed by neoliberal capitalism’s unending desire, it has been blind to the God-denying rape of the created world and it has ignored the refugee. But at least it doesn’t give over a Sunday every year to celebrate the 1 percent “job creators”, or to thank God for fracking, or to engage in xenophobic harassment. Yet in an age when we literally hand a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out all life on earth to a reality tv celebrity, we gather on Sundays and bow our head and let Mars pretend to be YHWH.
I have a friend we will call H. H hated reading growing up but is now almost at the end of a PhD in the sciences. And she told me during the week that I needed to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath because it was so heart-warming and illuminating. I take H seriously in everything she says and so I read the book yesterday. The book is classic Gladwell. A lot of important nuance gets brushed over by his wonderful, easy prose. But it closes with the story of the Presbyterian village of Le Chambon, where hundreds of Jewish people found refuge during the NAZI occupation of France. This is an amazing story, with increasingly terrifying relevance, considering the decisions that electorates are making across the Western world. Gladwell tells the story of how the teenagers of the village, summonsed to a Vichy event where a French version of Hitler Youth would be established, instead delivered a letter that began, “We have learned of the frightening scenes which took place three weeks ago in Paris, where the French police, on orders of the occupying power, arrested in their homes all the Jewish families in Paris,” and then continued to build to a conclusion that you should learn off by heart:
We have Jews.
You’re not getting them.
But there is a little detail, much less dramatic and heroic, in the story that explains why I think you should refuse to participate in Remembrance services. At one point, the Vichy government issued an edict that required all French churches should ring their bells on August 1st to mark the one-year anniversary of the NAZI arrival. The Presbyterian minister, André Trocmé, did not need to deliberate. He informed the church caretaker, a woman called Amélie, to ignore the rule. Two people summering in the village noticed the little disobedience and complained. Amélie knew how to respond:
The bell does not belong to the marshal, but to God. It is rung for God – otherwise it is not rung.
The ringing of the bell is not a hill to die on, surely. The townspeople were running a high-stakes game, offering sanctuary to Jews before shepherding them over the mountains to Switzerland. The less attention they attracted, the better. Strategically, this ringing refusal was an awful choice.
But they weren’t being strategic. They were being faithful. It is not always clear that those two domains overlap.
The disciplined, uncompromising witness of the Christians of Le Chambon did not fall like Manna. It was cultivated by regular, small acts of obedience to God which took the form of disobedience to common sense, to common decency, to common respectability.
I am not being needlessly bolshy. Our church is not discipled. Our church does not know how to worship its Lord. We are compromised by our love of technique and relevance. We are seduced by Mammon. We are intimidated by Mars. The poppy might, in a parallel universe, be an innocuous symbol of cultural heritage, but that is not where we live. There may be a world where it is just a good charity initiative, but that is not where we live. Where we live, in this, the real world, Remembrance Sunday is a missed opportunity for the church to recall its first love.
Ring your bells for God, otherwise ring them not at all.
The cover story for The Atlantic this month is a 10,000 word piece by Graeme Wood about the religious motivations behind ISIS. What they really want, Wood asserts, is the end of the world. And this is an Islamic desire. So when people like Islamic leaders or Muslim intellectuals or the first Muslim President of America Barack HUSSEIN Obama say that ISIS is not Islamic, they are all talking out of the side of their mouth. Wood knows, because he talked to lots of people before writing his article. Some people were in ISIS. Another chap is an expert in Islam at Princeton.
It is important that we learn about the inherently Islamic nature of ISIS’ beliefs because having that knowledge will “help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.”
Wood has lived an interesting life, it seems. He is Canadian, and a graduate of Harvard, having first attended the prestigious, elitist anti-school Deep Springs College. He has lived and worked in the Middle East and Cambodia. He lectures now at Yale. He is a clear, cogent writer. And yet he blithely assures us that “Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.” The validity of that sentence depends on where you think theology ends. If you grant that theology is involved in idolatry, then World War II starts looking like a pretty arcane theological dispute very quickly, as does the homelessness epidemic in Athens and Thessaloniki right now. The German finance gurus explicitly talk in religious terms; sacrifice and redemption.
My point here is not just that NAZI-ism might profitably be understood as a pagan religion. My point is that you need to be pretty sure of yourself to situate yourself as part of a society that used to kill over arcane theological issues but has seen the error of their ways, while talking about a society you claim still does that. You are necessarily setting yourself up as superior. You are offering an understanding of theology that is paper thin, almost as if you want to pretend theology isn’t alive and kicking in the cultures descended from a peace treaty signed in Westphalia in 1648 (the notional end of the religious wars).
Wood thinks that the West is beyond such religiosity and that we then export our assumptions to the Arab world, under the mistaken belief “that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”
This is a critical sentence. Wood’s argument is:
ISIS is religious.
The West mis-reads ISIS by downplaying its religiosity.
This mis-reading is dangerous.
This mis-reading is caused by the fact that religion isn’t a big deal in the West.
Does this seem credible to you? Is religion not a big deal in the West? If that is true, then why have “tens of thousands of foreign Muslims” left “France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places” to go fight for ISIS? It seems that if ISIS is religious, then large numbers of people in the West share that characteristic.
So a critical question we need to ask is: why are they not included in Wood’s understanding of the West?
Recall that list that summarised Wood’s argument up above. We have to flesh it out because the kind of religiosity that he claims ISIS represents is “apocalyptic.” Wood’s claim is that ISIS’ apocalyptic Islam leads them to hope for an “epic good-versus-evil battle” that will bring an end to the world. This might be true, but it is unfortunate that he doesn’t dwell more on this category of apocalyptic. Apocalypse literally means unveiling. It is a tradition present in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. When Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek, it can be read as an apocalyptic teaching; he is revealing the true nature of reality. Much of the apparently palatable teaching of Jesus relies on a claim about the secret nature of reality: the guys with the biggest sticks won’t win in the end, instead the grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses.
The world teems with variety. And just as there are a bunch of different ways you can draw the globe, and there are South Korean versions of popular American sitcoms, your apocalypse might be different from mine.
And that is really my killer point. Woods can talk casually about people killed by America as “drone-splats” and he can carelessly throw it out there that Mohammed, “whom all Muslims consider exemplary,” also owned slaves. Did not the prophets of America own slaves? Jefferson, Washington, Ulysses S. Grant who was president as recently as 1877 – they all at one time or another “owned” people. Wood’s piece reflects practically everything I have ever read about ISIS. It dwells on their frightening and depraved violence, while sliding over our frightening and depraved violence. It stands aghast at their setting fire to people, while forgetting (or never learning) that America dropped 388,000 tonnes of napalm – a chemical weapon in the form of a gel that sticks to human skin and then incinerates – during the Vietnam war. I do not mean to make ISIS and America seem like equivalents. Such moral calculus is beside the point. Instead, what I want to suggest is that Jesus has many hard things to say to people who judge out of their self-delusion.
Everyone who holds the Bible as their scripture is apocalyptic in some way because the Bible claims to tell you that the meaning of history will be revealed with the return of Jesus. My Christian faith is apocalyptic. If ISIS’ belief system is apocalyptic, that neither proves it is Islamic, nor demonstrates why that question matters. America is undoubtedly apocalyptic. It believes the meaning of history was prophesied in their Declaration of Independence and came to fruition with the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has ended. The perpetual present is our future; a world of neo-liberal capitalism, rhetoric about freedom, and increasingly rampant self-determination as our heavenly vision. The apocalyticism of Jesus tells you to forgive 70 times 7, to love your enemies, and to pray for them. That bears as little resemblance to America’s unveiling of the meaning of history as your local Mosque has to ISIS.
But when that fancy American magazine tells you that ISIS is religious, that ISIS is Islamic, that ISIS is apocalyptic, you should believe them?
Theology is not something that happens only in university departments and old-fashioned pulpits. It happens on battle-fronts and in war propaganda. That holds for ISIS and for NATO. If Christians do not learn how to read the ways in which their nation states are parasitically robbing and perverting their vocabulary, then they will never be able to see the world accurately. That blindness will be lethal.
Your Correspondent, Slow down sir! You’re going to give yourself skin failure!
By coincidence, I spent November 11th in London. I had the pleasure of addressing a group of Christian business people over dinner about a new initiative created by other Christian business people that would fix capitalism without having to change too much about capitalism.
I got the impression that my theological perspective was underwhelming.
The meal was lovely, in a private dining room of one of the finest restaurants in London. I had worn a suit and shoes all day. By dinner I longed for the comfort of an old pair of New Balances. Instead, I sat and watched my words and small-talked like the king of extroverts, a polished imitation of myself.
On the long commute back to the business hotel on the edge of town, across the river from the airport I was escaping from the next morning, I thought about the conversation I got to listen in on but I also thought about the display of 800,000+ handmade ceramic poppies representing all the British soldiers that died during the Great War (or less contentiously, the First War for Iraq). For a few weeks, ending that day, this exhibition served as a moat to the Tower of London. This is what they looked like on that grey, exhausting, London afternoon:
War made us who we are
Three things struck me from my visit to the exhibition. The first is that there is truth to the claim that the fighting in World War I made modern Britain possible. Admitting that does not justify anything like the sort of pornographic delusion that passes for remembrance (see: Sainsburys) at the moment.
You can still pay heed to the truth of history (that World War I was actually a murderous slaughter that no one can explain, never mind justify) and grant that the trajectory of 20th Century Britain was forged on the fields of Flanders. Britain let go of its Empire but held itself together and it entered the 21st Century playing a disproportionately central role in the affairs of the world.
As you turned around in a circle from the poppies you saw the signs of London’s spectacular golden age. The profits made by the legal and financial firms in the city of London has sparked a generation of remarkable prosperity. As people tried to recall the past, they were surrounded by the super-abundance of the present. Within sight of where I took that photo, I had a good view of the new London City Hall, the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie – all acclaimed masterpieces of contemporary architecture.
Each and every one of those buildings and the thousands of others that have sprung up – glass and steel and towering, or trapezoidal and sleek – is paid for by the kind of economic reorganisation that happened because a million young men died in trenches in Belgium.
Tourists and Pilgrims
I also thought about my friend Eoin O’Mahony, who has done such excellent thinking on pilgrimage and secularisation. There were thousands of people at the Tower of London – many tourists who probably would have visited regardless but also hundreds of locals, wandering by after business lunches. From a simple reading of the poppy art display, this was a huge success as an act of remembrance. But the words we used to justify that verdict are the words that call it into question.
It was a successful act of remembrance because so many tourists came to visit it. But as the theologian William Cavanaugh reminds us, “tourism is the aesthetic of globalisation in both its economic and political forms.” To be a tourist is to be privileged and uprooted. Only the wealthy tours. The poor are not tourists, but migrants. The only tourism globalisation allows them is “welfare tourism” bullshit. The tourist is away from home and away from allegiances. Everyday they decide their itinerary and are bound only by what they want to do.
Tourists cannot remember.
This is why tourists spend so much time taking photos of themselves, because the event must be recalled since it can’t be remembered. I don’t know the context and history and human real-ness of the Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand. What I do not know, I cannot remember. I take photos to recall the thoughts I had while there, which were thoughts foreign to the places.
The tourist is not illegitimate in any way, but the tourist is not the rememberer.
In among the thousands of selfie-shooters (including me grabbing that panorama), were a much smaller of much older men, usually with walking sticks, sometimes in wheelchairs and often accompanied by women – wives, daughters, carers? They were all dressed in suits. They were all wearing poppies. Many of them had tears in their eyes. They were pilgrims. They are not veterans of the 1914-1918 war, since they have all died. But they were men who knew the horror of combat and they came to see this beautiful and elaborate testimony to the fact that whatever the ethics or the politics or the damned stupidity of it all, people – the taxpayers like my wife who funded the art and the tourists like me who photographed it – people acknowledge that soldiers have done a job that no one should reasonably be asked to do. The losses incurred, the pain and agony and trauma and death are not honoured by our efforts but the effort is made nonetheless.
I realised standing there that the difference between tourist and pilgrim is the difference between Remembrance as it is done in the UK and how it should be done. The problem with how the church jumps in to Poppy activity could be described as the problem of the church pretending to be a pilgrim, when it is a tourist.
Modern art for Dummies Nations
Finally, I thought about the power of the stories of war and nation to subvert everything. Modern art can do things that no other medium can do. By any understanding of it, this was installation art. It was the kind of art that the Daily Mail despises. Except this particular work can be read off straightforwardly to mean one thing about sacrifice and nation. It means that a lot of blood swept the fields of Europe and it had something to do with war. Hence there was a sea of red flowing out of the Tower of London.
It was entitled Blood Swept Land and Seas of Red, from a poem that was written anonymously and is curiously free from the specific voice that marks so much of the great poetry of that age. It speaks in soft, diffuse, sentimental terms about about how God’s tears fall in anguish and how the time approaches “To sleep and cry no more.”
Grand. But in World War I, people didn’t go to sleep when shells hit their trenches.
The stories of war and nation subvert even the most stubborn modes of expression we have at our disposal (maybe modern dance is even more resistant to simplification), turning everything into feeling. The contradictory, incoherent, hard and bloody truth of our lives gets boiled down to an essence that you can wear on your lapel. The exhibition is beautiful. It is elegant. The craftsmanship is astonishing and the visual is arresting. Still it is neutered.
If war and nation sterilizes modern art, it will have no difficulty co-opting your 75 minute long worship service, however carefully planned, whatever contemporary praise songs you decide to sing.
I took the train back to my hotel. It raced out of the city, leaving the spires of finance behind, past the Olympic village, out into the first round of suburbs where people struggle to make ends meet. There were no Porsches here. No lunch at Harrods. No private dining rooms in fancy restaurants. But I can know for sure that there were flats where I would find the empty beds of men and women gone for a long time. They are away at war. I bounced from airport to hotel to restaurant to hotel to airport. I was a tourist. They are not pilgrims but servants.
The Tower of London poppies should have been mowed down by tanks. They should have been shattered by drone strikes. Instead they were sold off to charity. The funds will go to care for veterans, since the UK government doesn’t cover the full cost of rehabilitation. People bought them thinking that was a good deed, thinking those poppies are beautiful, displaying them on the mantelpiece or in a cabinet in their living rooms. The soldiers beds might never be occupied again. The soldiers will ensure other beds of other people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are never occupied again. Those wars too will be remembered with public art.
Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to fix capitalism from inside.
Your Correspondent, A veteran only of the Cola wars
My most excellent friend Richie Cronin took me to task over the belligerence, if I can use that phrase, of my “pacifism” this week. Here are some stray thoughts that might try and wrap up that conversation.
It Is Not Realistic
Non-violence doesn’t elicit a peaceful response. People are annoyed when you insist that you are against war. “All war?” You assure them that it is all war, even the so-called good ones. Then the annoyance begins.
Pastorally, when people get annoyed (and there isn’t anyone flicking their ears or snapping their bra-strap or breathing loudly through their nose or checking their phone while standing in a public doorway), it is usually a sign that sensitive emotional nerves have been touched. “Don’t meddle with my dishwasher organisation scheme!” (because it is one place in the chaos of my life that I can implement order and so on).
One of the expressions of annoyance that follows after you admit to agreeing that war is good for absolutely nothing, is a line of incredulity that takes the form of “You can’t really believe that!” As a Christian, I believe at least 66 incredible things before breakfast, including the claim that the Creator of the world was born of a Jewish teenager only to die at the hands of a smalltime Roman bureaucrat. The idea that people should refrain from killing other humans is smallchange after that set of commitments is brought into play.
Before long, the incredulity will turn to moral dismay. After all, HOLOCAUST. That the Germans who implemented the systemized and industrialised murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and disabled people also wore belt buckles that read “Gott mit uns” doesn’t appear to be relevant to the calculus, sadly. I should commit to memory this interaction between the 10 year old boy on his way to Germany and his father in Aidan Mathew’s great short-story “Train Tracks“:
“If anyone annoys you, just tell them this: in the middle of 1944, the Allies precision-bombed a munitions factory outside Auschwitz. Precision-bombed it.
Pulverised the whole complex. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks leading to the camp. They knew perfectly well that the camp was there; they knew perfectly well what was happening inside it. Flame-throwers turned on pregnant women; newborn babies kicked like footballs. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks. And now after twenty years, they talk about preserving the otter.”
Stanley Hauerwas and Enda McDonagh might be mocked for their “Appeal to Abolish War“, but people told William Wilberforce that his bill would bankrupt Britain. That the law passed didn’t mean slavery ended in the Empire. But it definitely helped reduce it.
This insistence that pacifism is unrealistic is so curious for Christians who have spent the last two millennia changing what is considered realistic. Remember that the belief in a Creator God seemed borderline crazy among the intellectual elite of Rome. Hospitals and orphanages, care programs for widows who then implemented care programs for the homeless, and a range of other costly social interventions by centuries of Christians literally changed the world so that compassion seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Wilberforce read the Scriptures and stood up to the slave-traders. It is not inconceivable that you might read the Scriptures and stand up to the weapons manufacturers.
Luke Bretherton, in Christianity and Contemporary Politics talks about how the Canon laws of sanctuary changed the social imagination of the world. Christians read their Scriptures and decided that the Christ-event meant we could never despise a human being because the state found them guilty. The monastic practice of sanctuary was our unrealistic response. As Bretherton unpacks it: “Theologically, if Christ is King, then no earthly sovereign or community has the power or right to utterly exclude or make an exception of anyone from the status of a human being.”
It was the duty of every man in eleventh-century England to pursue an outlaw, ravage his lands, burn his house, and hunt him as prey for he was a caput gerat lupinim – a friendless man, werewolf, wolf-man – in other words, he was bare life. Yet at the same time, the right of sanctuary and liturgical processes of giving satisfaction provided a countervailing injunction to enable the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
– Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, 157.
The determined and costly practice of Christians made lepers human, made the sick human, made the orphan, the widow, and the embryo human. It gave the outlaw sanctuary and the slave liberty. It is not unrealistic that the God of Resurrection would honour our determined and costly practice of non-violence and save the soldier from the battlefield.
Sanctuary was so successful a practice that when it was officially abolished by statute in 1624 its decline was “not lamented but viewed as part of the proper triumph of the modern secular state.” The polis was converted by the ekklesia.
Christological non-violence is not unrealistic because the miracle of conversion does actually happen.
It IS Realistic
My friend Richie thinks there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism. I think there are an infinity of ways to try to work out what it means to be a Christian but non-violence is the right answer. An analogy: on the spectrum from “Jesus was a great moral teacher” to “Jesus is the long awaited Messiah of Israel” you can find a bajillion gradations. Only one of those two options is correct however, and to whatever extent it is correct, it assumes the best of the wrong answer too. So the truth is found when we say “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah” and saying that commits you to also thinking that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Similarly, non-violence is the right response to the Messiah’s death on a cross, and that means that reasoning about war must be just.
G.K. Chesteron quipped that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The same might be said in the modern era for Christian non-violence. But if the argument against pacifism is that it is unrealistic, the arguers must believe their alternative is realistic. But if it turns out that Just War thinking has been held and advocated by the majority of Christians and it has functionally offered moral under-writing to unjust aggression, then the reasoning is not just.
Those last two, dense paragraphs can be summed up as: Can we take it for granted that Just War practices are realistic?
Let’s consider that question. I propose we take the last century as our sample, because humans are physically inclined to think in multiples of ten and because 100 years ago a very big war began which should be called the First Iraq War but because we are collectively insane, we call it the Great War.
Just War thinking is broken into two phases. We need to consider the justice of a proposed war before the battle and we need to consider the conduct of our war forces in battle.
The questions that must be answered before war are:
Probability of success
The questions that must be answered during war are:
Exclusive combatant engagement
Respect for international law
There is no war in the last 100 years that I am aware of that meets either the prior or direct requirements for just war. Even the war I most directly benefit from fails under both tests. The Irish revolutionary forces of 1916 did not have competent authority and they did not distinguish their targets. The Allied forces in World War II come closest, although any serious reading of that history which accounts for the role of the Versailles Treaty would call right intention into question. However, their means of fighting jus in bello fails on every count.
Modern warfare, especially as the West fights it, cannot possibly meet Just War standards. Bombs cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. When they can, that algorithm will still be programmed by human beings intent on killing people. International law cannot be honoured when France or the UK or Germany sell Israel or Colombia or Burkina Faso weapons that are outside the pale in terms of what is warranted. Augustine, Thomas and Grotius could never have imagined surveillance or drone warfare but neither of those developments make things easier for the majority Christian position. In the years to come, things are going to get messier still with the augmentation of soldiers through biotechnology or their replacement by robotic substitutes. I haven’t even addressed the issue of atomic weaponry, whose mere invention was so astoundingly stupid that their continued existence serves as proof for the Satan’s reality.
If there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism, then a considered look at the world we live in removes one of those options. The existence of dark evil like Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany or our modern-day ISIS ought not to be news to people who read about Herod. If John the Baptist and Jesus the Redeemer were peaceful in the face of that maniac, we know the way to go. Just war theorists give licence to maniacs like Tony Blair to rub his chin an go to church and bomb Iraq into the ground with a clean conscience. There is only one option. Because Christians live in a world of war, they cannot imagine being anything else than non-violent. If modern-day Just War advocates only sanction lethal violence when the terms of the theory are met, then they will be functional pacifists.
These may seem like strong words, improportionate and without warrant. But pacifists have committed to only fighting with words. Forgive us if they are sometimes very sharp.
Richie sometimes feels frightened by the claims of pacifists. His fears are misplaced. God sees every action and will judge them. The spilling of blood in Syria and Gaza, in Kurdistan and Missouri… it all flows as a result of military commitment. Jesus’ birth was met with the slaughter of the innocents. His death was the slaughter of The Innocent. If his victory is won by the subversion of the Empire’s military, then we should quake with holy and reverent fear to find ourselves on the side of war.
Your Correspondent, He tries to be on time for his appointments, so as to be late for his disappointments.
Nigeria’s capital city used to be Lagos and now it is Abuja. I do not know why that happened.
Rashidi Yekini was a powerhouse striker for them at the USA 1994 World Cup but I don’t know who will lead the line for the Flying Eagles this summer in Brasil. I’d have to google “Flying Eagles” to make sure that is the national football team’s nickname.
I know Biafra is a region in the east because Irish missionaries had a strong presence there and my friend from church was born and raised there. But I don’t know what the other provinces are called.
I know the President of Nigeria is named Goodluck Jonathan, because who can forget a name like that. I don’t know what party he represents or what the parliamentary political spectrum of Nigeria looks like.
I know that there is oil wealth in Nigeria but I couldn’t tell you what people grow on their farms. Is there Nigerian coffee?
I heard over the weekend about “Nollywood”, a sort of makeshift Nigerian answer to Bollywood but I cannot name a single Nigerian actor or director. Or musician. Or poet. Or novelist. There are what, 100 million Nigerians? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things.
I do not for a moment want to malign or minimize the sincerity with which people have deployed the #bringbackourgirls campaign. That 200 girls can be whisked away is quite literally the stuff of fairytale nightmares. It is a horror movie made real. To the extent that we can think of it, it repels us. It is disgusting beyond words.
But if there was some scandal in the UK, where I live now, and people on social media took to commenting on it but were unable to tell me basic things about why London is the capital or what sports people play or how the Northerners resent the Southerners or who David Cameron is and why Satan has released him from hell, I’d weigh their input lightly. Granted, cricket is a tough game to understand, so we’ll lessen our demands for familiarity on that score. But if on top of all that they couldn’t say meaningful things about the economy or the arts and the best thing they could say about religion is that in the south they are Anglican and in the north they are Reformed, then we would definitely want to inquire about whether their public commentary was well placed.
“Raising awareness” is a phrase with very little meaning if hashtagification leaves me in the dark about such an endless list of things.
You may know Nigeria much better than me. You may have an in-depth understanding of Boko Haram; its aims and objectives and history. You may have just read the Wikipedia article about them, which is already vastly more than most people. But the very horror of the scenario makes this situation into a fiendishly good story. The temptation to comment on it on social media can feed into that fiendishness. Our commentary becomes part of the story.
I recognise the irony that I am commenting on the commenting on a story that I am suspicious about comment on. But bear with me. I am answering my friend’s question about what a Christian pacifist does in this situation.
When we reflect on the Boko Haram kidnappings we quickly ask ourselves why it is that this story has been picked up. Or at least, I ask that question. I mean, why does CNN tell this story? The simple answer is that the Malaysian Airlines plotline ran out of steam (so to speak) and the Crimean scenario is too complex to reduce into a ticker-tape message. Bad guys stealing teenaged girls is News TV gold.
Of course in some very real and important sense, it is good that we know this story. It is good that we know what is going on. But we already know that hundreds of thousands of people are kidnapped and trafficked every year. Presumably the horror movie shape of this tragedy is not categorically different from the mundane ways in which men profit from the flesh of women and children. A line, potted and meandering, can be traced from these girls’ captivity back to #everydaysexism (one of the rare sustained, politically sharp hashtag campaigns).
There may be even more nefarious reasons why this story is picked up but on a brutally pragmatic level, it is picked up because it can be packaged for television news. It can be hashtagged. It can be the feature of both op-eds and infographics in the Guardian. It is news that can be sold. And we buy it.
I’m not saying that is wrong in and of itself. But I would suggest that a politics informed by the daily news cycle is a politics bound to be manipulated and even misled. It is a politics that gives away the only politically potent thing you have – your agency – and in return gives you heartbreak and frustration.
I am not saying anyone is wrong for being caught up in this truly human story. But I am saying that your hashtagification of west African paramilitarism is unlikely to be the input required to bring reconciliation.
When was the last time you thought about Kony?
If you are anything like the statistically likely reader of this blog, here is the one tweet about this that you need to do business with:
The 5 stages of Western Reaction to Foreign Events
2 Wikipedia wisdom
5 Tedious self-obsession
We tweet, in total sincerity, out of love for our fellow humans, that in the face of such a tragedy we ache in our powerlessness. The story we reveal in such a tweet is that this story is about us.
Teju Cole wrote a few hundred words about this for the New Yorker today. He wrote less words than I have written and said more than I could hope to say. It’s funny how a man raised in Nigeria, by Nigerian parents, could have valuable things to say about Nigeria.
I will quote him extensively because it is typical of the clarity and humanity he brings to everything he writes, and because scientific studies indicate you won’t click on a link just because I tell you the thing at the end of it is good:
And what are they themselves thinking of, huddled in their dozens, warned to stay quiet? Not of the murders of Boko Haram’s founder and some of his followers by Nigeria police five years ago, which sparked the violent phase of the group’s campaign of terror. Not of the thousands killed during that campaign, in suicide bombs, attacks on churches, and shootings at restaurants, a frightening catalog of atrocities. Not of the global war on terrorism, nor of America’s strategic goals in that war. (Already, in Niger, a drone base is assembled; already American specialists are on their way to help the Nigerian government.) Not of Baga, some two hundred miles from Chibok, where last year government forces massacred two hundred civilians, nor of Maiduguri, where, in mid-March this year, more than five hundred men were executed on suspicion of being terrorists. Not of Abuja, where bombs now explode with unnerving frequency. Not of next year’s elections, which the President wants to win at all costs, nor of the corruption fueling his reëlection bid.
They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.
They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.
The middle thing a Christian pacifist would say in the face of the Boko Haram is that the causes of the kidnapping of these girls is remote and unavailable to westerners sitting on sofas, idling on their phones during the ad break of a Scandinavian detective show on BBC4. We can say it is horrendous. We can say it is wrong. But why say redundant things? The moral clarity of the Simpsons’ is helpful here. Helen Lovejoy is horrendous because she is futile.
We can say that whatever about other causes, the kidnapping was not caused by an absence of lethal violence. As Teju Cole documents in his writing, the Nigerian state is not afraid of murder. Killing people didn’t prevent this from happening. Why would we think killing people would fix it?
So the bulk of the response that this Christian pacifist makes is to say that we’re dealing with fantasies if we think that we can formulate a response that makes sense. The Americans are going to deploy their drones. Nigeria is rich in oil. It is a “hotbed” of “religious tension”. It is home to Taliban-esque groups who do inhumane things that defy reason. Is Nigeria being positioned as our next Afghanistan? Whether or not it is or it isn’t, “Kill them” is politically, militarily and morally problematic. If nothing else, how can we kill people we can’t find?
The first thing that the person committed to Christian non-violence would say in the face of this incident is the first thing they always say: Pray. Good words to start with are the words of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” See where that takes you. Or Jesus, as quoted by Matthew, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Or of course, the Psalms of imprecation will come as comfort for your troubled soul. Psalm 94 begins, “O Yahweh, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the earth. Repay upon the proud what is their rightful due. How long will the wicked, O Yahweh, how long will the wicked exult?”
What do Christian pacifists advocate in response to the Boko Haram? Prayer.
So first prayer. And then humble acknowledgement that we don’t and can’t know what is at play and how to win this game so that those girls no longer have to spend a night facing the horror Cole so vividly draws. What then is the last thing that the Christian pacifist will do?
They’ll pray again. Because if they are wrong about this non-violence thing and are trying to convince the church to follow them, that is a very, very serious misdeed.
Your Correspondent, Will listen to his wife when he’s dead
A congregation member from back in Maynooth was talking to me on the phone this evening and they asked me to write a ten point list about Christians and non-violence. So here goes.
Fundamentally, you can’t understand the call to non-violence without reflecting on Jesus standing before Pilate. Jesus’ victory comes about through his torture and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, their brutal representative Pilate and the nails driven through his flesh, into the cross by soldiers. Doing serious, prayerful, business with the fact that God responds to military might without militarism fuels the sneaking suspicion that Christians are called to another path.
Of course, that sneaking suspicion appears to have been a full-on assumption in the early church. Tertullian is representative when he says, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” The early church, not absolutely but in the largest part, took non-violence to be the norm.
That shifted fairly rapidly when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. He was actually waging war when he had his purported vision that converted him. How bizarre is it that Rome would (more than fifty years after Constantine) adopt Christianity as its official religion? They raise Jesus as their Lord, having previously raised Jesus on to their execution device? But this is how Empire works. An imperial army devastates the opponent and then amalgamates the opponent into itself. Is it fanciful to suppose that Christians need to wrestle with what it means that we have been emeshed into the very systems that killed our Christ?
And when we think about Rome, we think about Empire and our thoughts turn to how the Bible is always deeply troubled by militaristic regimes. From Egypt to Babylon, from Alexander to Caesar, the stance of the Bible seems to be that the people of God are not meant to play the ideological games of world domination. When Israel asks YHWH for a King so that they can be like the other nations, what warning does he send them through the prophet Samuel? “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.” Is it fanciful to think that Christians are called to be suspicious when power is used to accumulate military force?
Perhaps you think you’ve spotted a weakness in my argument. I have gladly quoted from the Old Testament. And as Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” and it goes on. How can Christians be called to pacifism if God is not afraid of violence? Well let me answer that by saying that if God calls me to take up a sword, I will take up a sword. Until then, I will leave the outcome of history in his hands, since it is probably safer there than in mine.
And this is why I don’t say I am a pacifist. That sounds too, well, passive. Instead, I am convinced we are called to the most difficult but also most significant action in the world: prayer. As Karl Barth says, prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. If European Christians had prayed more in the aftermath of World War I, instead of trying to find ways to perfect politics, maybe we wouldn’t have gone so far down the hellish rabbit hole of fascism.
My great theological hero, Stanley Hauerwas, who convinced me of non-violence, has a slogan. He says it is not our responsibility “to make history come out right”. What he means by this is that faith in God involves trusting that the victory of Christ is real. Nothing humans can do will either damage or hinder God’s plans. We are called to have the faith of the psalmist and the prophets and even of Job, in the face of turbulence, even war. God is in charge. We don’t have to be panicked into actions unworthy of his ambassadors.
Ambassadors represent the people who sent them. Christ’s ambassadors are sent by someone who dies for the sake of others. For the Christian, there are fates worse than death. This seems to be an inevitable conclusion of Jesus’ claim that the greatest love one can show is that you lay down your life for others. In other words, the chief problem with war is not that you might die, but that you might kill.
I hope it is becoming clear that the chief motivation for non-violence is not that somehow by being opposed to war we might reduce its occurrence (but how nice would that be?). Rather, in a world of war, Christians have no other option than to be non-violent. Since war is never a battle between goodies and baddies, the people in the right and those in the wrong, no matter how many Hollywood movies try to convince us otherwise. War is the continuation of politics by other means. War is the outcome of the military-industrial complex. War shows up as sharp end of politics and economy, of technology and propaganda, of surveillance, control and power. War is never a simple thing. By the time that Christians have prayerfully and gently deliberated and discerned what is going on, the blitz will have been krieged and the troops will be in play. In other words, war moves faster than the church, when the church is taking itself seriously. We couldn’t catch up even if we wanted.
But then on another angle, war is always a simple thing. It involves the randomisation of the internal organs of human beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made by their creator, who bear the image of their God, who are sustained by their redeemer. War is not the plan God has for his people. When war breaks out, is the consequence of sin. Better to repent than try to undo the sin with more sin. As Bonhoeffer said, if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. Get off the war train. We don’t need it. We need God. And in Revelation, people walk into God’s city on foot to praise the Prince of Peace. Since that is our future, let us let it shape our present too.
Your Correspondent, If he was a spice, he’d be flour