By Bill Leonard
“It’s just war.” That phrase often describes our society’s implicit response to the war in Afghanistan, begun in 2001, the longest combat conflict in American military history. The “other war” in Iraq, begun in 2003, continues with troops to be withdrawn by year’s end.
Recent statistics list 4,479 American casualties in Iraq and 1,812 casualties in Afghanistan, not counting civilians or the wounded.
War news often languishes on newspaper back pages or television news “summaries” dwarfed by presidential campaigns, Wall Street or Tea Party demonstrations and employment figures. Unless you’re military or a military-related family, “it’s just war.” We are there, we wish we weren’t, not much we can do about it; it’s just war.
Preparation for a recent “Reclaiming the Prince of Peace Conference” compelled me to revisit Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called God’s children.” Does that admonition still apply?
Historically, peacemaking surely involves three basic elements:
— Renewing the conscience. In The Lustre of our Country, John Noonan writes that conscience was the “central moral notion of the pagan world converged with the Christian tradition.” Roman philosophers called conscience the “inner judge,” while Christians saw it as “moral consciousness” combining “witness, judge, reason, [and the] voice of God.”
Conscientious objection, non-resistance and peacemaking are evident in Christian communities from the Roman Empire to the present. The historic “Peace Churches” — Anabaptist, Mennonite, Quaker and other traditions — continue to link gospel, conscience and peacemaking inseparably.
Conrad Grebel, early Anabaptist martyr, noted in 1524: “True Christians use neither worldly sword nor engage in war, since among them taking human life has ceased entirely…. The gospel and those who accept it are not to be protected with the sword, neither have they thus protected themselves.”
A radical response to the gospel led Anabaptists to those views; a radical response to conscience led them to speak and write their beliefs, knowing that they might pay dearly for it. Can we renew a peacemaking conscience among a younger generation yet unclear about its meaning, and an older generation haunted by cynicism or exhausted by continuing conflicts?
— Recognizing the possibility of dissent. With a renewal of conscience comes the possibility of dissent. Internalized convictions can have public consequences.
Quaker John Woolman’s Journal (1757/58) details his refusal to pay taxes that supported wars against Native Americans. He wrote: “To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceedingly disagreeable; but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful.” Woolman concluded that while other “upright-hearted” persons paid those taxes, their example was “insufficient reason for me to do so.” For Woolman, dissent represented “principled objection” to culture-contradictions to peacemaking.
Some dissenters take public action. Others are quiet but determined, as in the non-violent response of a slave-woman who recalled when cooking for the “master:” “How many times I spit in the biscuits and peed in the coffee….”
From a monastic cloister, Thomas Merton’s literary dissent against the Cold War included this 1961 declaration: “When I pray for peace, I pray not only that the enemies of my country may cease to want war, but above all that my own country will cease to do the things that make war inevitable.”
— Claiming the responsibility of the minority. Dissent for peace is often a minority voice. Responding recently to what they viewed as was their government’s harassment of some 80,000 Roma/Gypsy children, Italian Waldensians and Methodists addressed “The Responsibility of a Minority,” asserting:
“There are moments during which responsibility for vigorously affirming fundamental principles of civil society falls on the shoulders of small minorities. It is the duty of these minorities to intervene because they know firsthand the pain of prejudice and persecution inflicted by the majority, … unable to stop episodes of hatred, discrimination and violence against whomever’s turn it is to be different. Today it is the turn of the Gypsy children…. We cannot keep silent during this moment when our spiritual, ethical and civil responsibility demand we speak out. “
Peacemaking remains complex, controversial and elusive, yet sometimes we get a small taste of its unimagined possibilities. In 2005 I joined Wake Forest University students and faculty in a service-learning project in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, helping build a two-room school deep in the jungle. Our hosts, an older married couple, made lunch for us daily, extending friendship and hospitality. From household pictures we discerned that both had been combatants in what the Vietnamese call the “American War.” They were Viet Cong.
We departed the village amid the hugs and tears of a brief but astonishingly profound experience. A year later, a colleague revisited the commune, discovering that much of it had washed away in a devastating typhoon. The house where we took meals was gone; only the doorposts remained. She learned that after our departure our former Viet Cong hosts had carved each of our names on that same doorpost. And for one brief shining moment, perhaps, a group of Vietnamese and Americans understood something of the unexpected grace of peacemaking carved on a doorway in a Mekong Delta commune.
Will such halting albeit overpowering moments eradicate decades of geo-political, ideological conflict in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or Washington, DC? Of course not. Two-room school houses and names on Viet Cong doorposts won’t transform complex global struggles anytime soon. Not yet, anyway. After all, it’s just peace.