Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Why War is not the Answer

Through the Street Corner Society blog, I found a fascinating analysis of the Friends Peace Testimony by someone identifying herself as "Neo-neo-con". She responded to a banner on a Friends meetinghouse that says "War is not the Answer."

Her analysis is quite good, I think, especially where she notes the inconsistency with which Friends have observed their Peace Testimony, though there are obvious points of disagreement.

Here is a comment I left for her, slightly edited. My only hesitation in posting it is that it might sound presumptuous for me to appear to be speaking for all Friends. I just didn't want to lard it up with qualifications. For now, it'll have to be enough that I realize it might be presumptuous and apologize in advance:

As a Friend, if I had to sum up our Peace Testimony, I would say it is our willingness to accept suffering ourselves rather than to inflict it on others. It is the example Jesus set for us.

That suffering may include enduring imprisonment and even death even though innocent of any crime, or living under an oppressive conditions as Friends did when they patiently endured severe corporeal and economic punishments rather than enlist in the army, pay war taxes, drill with the militia, be conscripted, pay a substitute, etc. While Friends used peaceful, political methods to partially mitigate their suffering (e.g., obtaining legal exemption of conscious objectors from conscription), they nevertheless accepted suffering themselves rather than to inflict it on others.

Is it realistic to expect everyone to accept such suffering? Friends do not necessarily expect everyone to share our scruples in this regard. We therefore do not condemn individuals who defend themselves with violence when necessary, or Friends who have kept our Peace Testimony inconsistently. Neither do we necessarily condemn a state that does so, even if we cannot personally participate in such conduct, if the purpose is just, the means are lawful, and innocent blood is not shed. (These qualifications make most modern wars inherently unjust.) We don't say that waging war to defend oneself is always wicked, but that there is always a more excellent way.

Rather, we have learned from direct experience -- individually and corporately -- that by listening to and heeding the Inner Light (known by some as Jesus the Christ), human beings can live in a world full of injustice and violence without becoming, as Camus said, either victim or executioner. As President Bush has said, Christ can change your heart.

Thus, when we say "War is not the Answer", we mean that it is not the answer to any evil, whether characterized as terrorism, poverty, injustice, or war itself. We mean that war always obscures and interferes with the ability of human beings -- whether aggressor, defender, or innocent victim -- to hear the true Answer and therefore does not truly solve the problem. So not only does our religious experience prevent us from personally participating in war, our love for others requires us to testify that war is not the solution to their problems (and to point them to the Prince of Peace who is).

This kind of understanding is obviously at odds with the a-theistic, secular world view that predominates the world today, a world view that denies any supernatural or eternal moral reality, that relies on human reason and technique to solve problems such as war and evil. Such a world view sees religion -- and human beings -- merely as a tool to achieve certain ends rather than as an end in itself. The efforts of Osama bin Laden and George Bush to use religious language and symbols to sanctify the war they wage against other is blasphemous as a matter of religion, though entirely logical from a secular point of view.

Even so, we have not been called to disengage from the World, to throw up our hands and say "You'll never understand until you've been converted." We are a practical people and have worked tirelessly to improve the concrete day-to-day conditions of human beings -- from ministering impartially to the victims of war to abolishing slavery to achieving the political equality of men and women. We believe things can be better even if they cannot yet be perfect.

Regarding war, we make concrete political proposals that we believe, in good faith, will reduce the suffering that war has produced and prevent further suffering. Here is one such practical proposal on how to more effectively protect the innocent from terrorism.

We are engaged in the political conversation, but our Peace Testimony is not rooted in politics and cannot ultimately be judged in political terms (or, I should say, we would not accept any judgment of it that made in solely political terms).

The questions we ask ourselves continually, the answers for which we hold ourselves responsible, are: "Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Do you search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war? Do you stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remembering that they too are children of God? Do you endeavor to live in virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars?" With Divine Assistance, I pray our our answer will always be "yes."


Johan Maurer said...

If I had to choose a personal statement that might "appear to be speaking for all Friends, I would be grateful to have your words to point to.

The statement on peace contained within the Richmond Declaration of Faith of 1887 has served as the "teaching voice" of Friends in the so-called orthodox and evangelical groupings and remains true north for my Quaker compass. But foundational documents can't serve the same purposes as a simple and straightforward statement or restatement from the heart.

I'm glad you acknowledged that peace people do think about the defense of innocent people, as that is the single most important pillar of just war and other non-pacifist attempts to reconcile violence and discipleship.

Paul L said...

Thanks for the reference to the Richmond. Declaration. It had been a long time since I read it. Tonight, I was struck in particular by these words:

"He who has brought us to Himself has not prescribed for man precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them."

And I do think the peace movement needs to confront the reality of the threat posed to real people by their real enemies. 9-11 was not a paranoid delusion. Neither was 7-11 in London. Or Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima.

I've been embarrassed by some of my fellow peace protesters who have tried to redefine our enemies into victims, as if we created them from our imagination. Jesus said to love them, not deny their existance. A much more difficult task.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
thanks for your essay.

What do you think about the discussion on the other blog about how relying on police is like relying on violence?

Do you think that putting up in the war is not the answer banner might have the seeds of war in it because it might have some self-righteousness or pridefulness in it?

I really don't know what to think about the first question. I am holding the second question tenderly because I think the answer might be yes, at least to a degree.

In the Light of Christ


Isabel Penraeth said...

I can't help suggesting you read Robert Griswold's Friends Peace Testimony in Times of Terrorism at


Rich in Brooklyn said...

This was a wonderful and thoughtful post.

Of Elizabeth's two questions, I find the first to be worthy of much further thought. I can't say that the second one troubles me at all. There are lots of things Quakers sometimes say that risk being self-righteous or prideful, but "War Is not the answer" doesn't seem to me to be one of them.

- - Rich

Paul L said...

Elizabeth -- Yes, the police question is a real one. There were a couple of articles in Friends Journal a couple of months or so ago on this topic that I found intelligent and helpful.

I'm theoretically at ease with supporting a effective police force to the extent necessary to protect the innocent and deter the violent, as long as police use force only in conformity with the general criteria for a just war: used pursuant to lawful authority; only as a last resort; proportional to the harm posed by the offender; only to the extent necessary, not wantonly; harm not the innocent. This is certainly consistent with how Friends have viewed the question during the 17th through 19th centuries; George Fox explicitly and more than once cited Roman 13 as divine warrant for the magistrate to wield the sword.

But as a practical matter, a lot of police activity in the real world is wanton, illegal, in the service of unjust laws and unjust economic system, etc. I wonder whether the theoretical possibility of a just police function in a such a society is sufficient to justify uncritical support in the face of the real world. I just don't know

Perhaps, though, the problem of crime is similar to the problem of war and our approach to one should resemble the other. If the Inner Light shows us a new paradigm for how to look at conflict between nations, perhaps it would show how crime, too, can be analyzed as conflict (rather than simply immoral behavior) that can lead to a more satisfactory solution. I worked for a decade before moving to Minnesota in the early days of a movement now known as "restorative justice" that is working hard on changing the paradigm.

Re pridefulness and self-righteousness, yes, there is certainly a possibility of that. From my standpoint, too many peace protesters (including Quakers) often sound more like scolds rather than prophets or witnesses. My previous post on the Silent Protest of 1917 was intended to address that observation.

And you may recall my article in the meeting newsletter a couple of years ago about the banner where I wondered aloud why it was so easy for us to agree on "War is not the Answer" slogan while it is nearly impossible for us to unite on any common religious understanding that can be communicated to ourselves or others. Something is wrong with that picture, I think, if we really are a church and not a political club.

But I've come around to being glad the banner is there. I've learned that it does far more than state an opinion. I've begun to see it like the red doors on Episcopal steeplehouses or the blood on the door lintels at Passover, as a sign to others that you're safe here. If there's pridefulness or self-righteousness mixed in, that's a problem to work on, but I'm more comfortable with identifying at least this aspect of our testimony publically as we do.

Thanks as always for your insightful questions.

Liz Opp said...

I don't know, Paul. I sometimes wonder if it isn't time to change the banner to read Love is the answer.

Or what if the banner read Love is the answer. The question is how to choose love during difficulty.

I realize this is off-topic a bit, but I've been carrying that thought for a while now.

Liz, The Good Raised Up