Tuesday, April 22, 2008

the moral power of pacifism

We're at war right now, and the choices continually set before us are to increase the violence, or to abandon Iraq to its own violence.

I don't think either option is particularly moral.

Violence begets violence. A country's defeat in one war leads to harbored resentment and anger that simmers and stews into the next generation, where it erupts into new conflict fueled by indignation over past crimes against the nation. During this new conflict, new wrongs are committed, new seeds of anger and hatred are sown, and in time, a new conflict will arise from the pains and wounds of the current one.

That's not just pretty rhetoric, it's ugly reality. The Hundred Years War, World War II and the current conflict in the Middle East all grew from previous conflicts. A war -- even a so-called "just" war -- fundamentally violates every dream God has for humanity and settles for a quick, dirty and easy solution instead of the far more difficult one of working toward peace.

Nonviolence of the sort espoused by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi in India or by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the South is painful and hard to live by. It also begets violence, because it involves defying evil men without ever raising a hand to them. A police officer smashes your head for burning government papers, you go ahead and burn them anyway. They sic dogs on you for trying to vote, you go down and vote anyway.

Stanley Hauerwas correctly points out that nonviolent resistance has a moral force to it that war and fighting lack. We all like to feel that we're basically decent people. How many times can you see a peaceful demonstrator get cracked on the head before you're appalled? How many times can you hit such a demonstrator until realize that you're not such a decent guy after all, especially when he never does anything more offensive than getting back up?

Sooner or later, you crack and you stop, ashamed. That shame leads to repentance and a change in behavior, without a sense of being the wronged party and thereby fostering a need to harbor resentment.

I call that the moral high ground. Don't you?

For the most part, "bad people" exist only in our imaginations. Doctor Doom makes a great supervillain, but in the end he's unbelievable, not only because he refers to himself in the third person, but because he simply is evil for the sake of amassing power for its own sake.

You can see this with some of the historic abuses in police departments. Activisits will appeal to the officers' sense of shame, empathy and guilt, to no avail. The targeted officers have all sorts of arguments -- safety, orders, the requirements of enforcing the law  -- that they feel justify their abusive actions.

Going hand in hand with that is a sense that the activists are self-righteous, hate or least don't support police, or don't have all the information that the police themselves possess. After all if they did, then they would stop being so naive, and would understand why the police have to engage in the regrettable but necessary actions that they do.

But if you bring a person face to face with what they're really like -- get them to the point where they see how unreasoning and hateful they're being -- many of them will change.

Good people do not always need to use force to stop bad people from hurting other people. It's simply not true. There are other ways, and they are costly, and they are not as easy as demonizing your opponents and blowing them up or shooting them full of holes, all the while getting more opportunities to demonize them when they keep killing your people as they defend their homes from foreign demons.

Guns liberated Auschwitz and violence ended slavery, it's true; but does that mean that only guns and violence could have? I don't buy it. That's an argument from silence, that since nothing else was tried, nothing else would have worked. Oppression continued in the South long after the Civil War with share cropping, Jim Crow justice, segregation and racial violence. That alone should tell us how successful the war was at ending racial injustice.

Certainly the example of unions and strikes demonstrated that it is possible to foment great social change without killing -- as does the example of Jesus, who also showed that great change often requires being killed.

War is a complex, ugly thing, and I'm certainly not suggesting that simply declaring an armistice will make everything better. But for the long-term stability not just of Iraq but the entire region, we need to find a peaceful way to resolve the conflicts we have begun, that does not involve simply bludgeoning people into compliance.

It won't be easy, but in the end, peace is the only way.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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