We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism. To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem. First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture. There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case. This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.
Second, this is a biblical case. Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members. Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters. Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church. But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.
For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity. I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal: understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.
Defining some key terms in this study:
- Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ. “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.]. So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up. “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims that Jesus Christ makes on their lives. It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
- Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.” Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study. But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence. For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, ed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Update: Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right. But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc. Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil. Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong. We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong. The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism. There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear. Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.” But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
- As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion. Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion. Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires. Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence. If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.” However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent. Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
- These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important. Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children. That is not so. Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome. Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car. I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm. So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
- Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue. Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent. Nor are intentions everything: If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence. The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
- Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence. It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent. Examples of such practices include: strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc. We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
- Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence. These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
- Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.” In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking. For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter). (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention. See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005). This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
- Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice). This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles. Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking. I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.
I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow. The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions: “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.
I can’t reproduce this article because it is copyrighted, but I can link to it on Glen Stassen’s sight since he had permission from author David Cortright to reproduce it there. Cortright is a major peace scholar with Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute on Peacebuilding and founder of the Fourth Freedom Foundation. He argues that embracing just peacemaking principles, not widening the war, is the best way forward in Afghanistan
This is a link to a great article by Derrick Crowe. Unfortunately, it reinforces my continued belief that Afghanistan will be to Obama what Vietnam was to LBJ. I highly recommend the article and wish the Obama admin. was not getting trapped in the D.C. bubble.
I’ve been involved in actions for peace since I became a pacifist and conscientious objector in 1983. In that time, I have discovered many different approaches to peace. Some, like the Amish, ignore the world outside. They seek to create a culture of peace and simplicity that interacts as little as possible (fair trade of simple, but beautiful, handcrafted goods) with others. If they influence others, it is only by example.
Of those, like myself, however, who believe in helping to create a more peaceful world, some believe that one should only denounce politicians who aren’t as pure in their commitment to peacemaking as they are. Anyone who is not a committed pacifist is a “warmonger.” This type is represented by my regular critic “Kathy” and by Cindy Sheehan yelling “to hell with Obama.” I believe this is NOT HELPFUL. It is like the Republicans showing up with an alternative “Budget to Nowhere” that had no numbers. Absurd.
Instead, I am contacting the heads of as many peace organizations in the U.S. (especially faith-based ones, since I know them best) and seeking to create a practical alternative. Obama was opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning, but not because, like me, he believes that all war is wrong. I heard him (just as state senator from IL then), speak to an anti-war crowd in Chicago in 2004 (on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq). Seeing the many “War is Not the Answer” signs in the crowd, Obama respectfully told the crowd that he disagreed. Citing WWII, he said that sometimes war IS the answer. Obama declared that he was not against all war, just a DUMB war–which he believed Iraq was. I disagreed, but I understood the position. It falls within the dominant Just War tradition of the West, mixed with American pragmatism.
The Obama I first heard on that cold March morning in ’04, is the same one who later became U.S. Senator and then President. He has been remarkably consistent, especially on his approach to foreign policy: War is a last resort, but not to be ruled out altogether. He is ending the Iraq war as slowly as he is, because he believes that has the best chance of keeping Iraq from falling apart when we are gone. He worries about the stability of the region–Bush’s invasion has destabilized the entire Middle East. Obama is fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan because he believes he has no choice. The alternative, he believes, is to allow al Qaeda a safe haven from whence they will continue to attack others around the world, including the U.S. He doesn’t like it, but believes it necessary.
To get Obama to adopt a different policy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, peace folk have to do more than show the problems of the way he is choosing, he sees those problems. We also have to show a better alternative. My overarching paradigm is a strategy which does not seek to DESTROY al-Qaeda or the Taliban by force, but to make them IRRELEVANT and unnatractive to would-be recruits, to drain their power and their support.
To this end, I am proposing a comprehensive strategy for the U.S. peace movement:
- We hold a series of conferences with just peacemaking experts on alternative strategies for fighting terrorism and for Afghan and Pakistan stability. If possible, we get representatives from Congress, the State Department, the United Nations, and the White House to attend at least some of these conferences–trying to get them beyond the “Washington bubble” where “Pentagon thinking” rules supreme, regardless of person or party.
- We get these ideas into the media, so as to change the terms of the debate. Because of the many other problems at home, the media is asking more questions about the war in Afghanistan than at any time since 2002. The giant “yes machine” and “echo chamber” is less airtight than at any time since 9/11. If we can get alternatives into the media, we can change public opinion.
- We build power in the streets. This will take time, but the latest Gallup Poll shows that 42% of Americans now believe even entering Afghanistan in response to 9/11 was a mistake. The poll did not ask if they believed we should now leave. It was a flawed poll in wording. But it gives us a place to start. We work to build public pressure against continued troop escalations in Afghanistan (or spreading to Pakistan) and for a concrete exit strategy and timeline for withdrawal. I think that by the time of the Midterm elections in 2010, we will have built enough public power to be a powerful political force.
- We seek allies in Congress. We began to shift the debate on Iraq in 2004 with the formation of the “Out of Iraq Caucus” in Congress, led Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). It now has 73 members, one of the largest of Congressional caucuses. We need to try to form a “Just Peacemaking in Afghanistan & Pakistan” Caucus. I suggest we try to recruit Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and the three women from CA above. In the Senate, I suggest we try to recruit Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the only self-described Democratic Socialist in the U.S. Congress, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Barbara Walters (D-CA) and maybe others. They will know whom to recruit in Congress. The New York Times also indicates that Vice President Biden has been the voice of caution against escalation into quagmire during the WH internal debates. So, we seek to enlist VP Biden, and to strengthen his voice over the hawkish advice of Defense Secretary Gates (and the even more hawkish advice of the Generals on the ground). Biden and Clinton are responsible for the development and anti-corruption parts of the plan and Biden for limiting the troop escalation and for narrowing the U.S. goals. Obama apparently split the difference between his civilian and military advisers. So, we have possible allies even within the administration. Our strategy must include ways to strengthen them and weaken the influence of the hawks and “counterinsurgency experts.”
- We seek a major role for the United Nations and we hope to pressure the U.S. for a course change using diplomatic pressure from our allies.
- We take independent initiatives for peace ourselves that do not wait on government figures of any party, including nonviolent, unarmed “guards” accompanying villagers in Afghanistan. I have been a part of such efforts in Nicaragua in the 1980s. They are risky, but they can change the hearts and minds of ordinary people. These efforts MUST include the participation of Muslim Peace Activists so that they do not simply seem like a Western or Christian model imposed on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but an alternative to Islamist terrorism that faithful Muslims can embrace. (The participation of the Muslim Peace Fellowship will be essential.) These initiatives should be as international as possible.
There is no guarantee that such an approach will meet with success–either in bringing a just peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan or in getting the U.S. to change course. It will take the brains and organizational skills of many people much brighter than myself (and I am already contacting as many as I can this weekend). But I believe this is better than simply saying “NO” to war (as important as that is). It is much better than calling the president names. (By the way, why is it that U.S. peace activists can push for treating dictators and mass murderers with enough respect to enter into negotiations, but find that they cannot take the same approach with our own politicians? Maybe you consider Obama to be your enemy, but, if so, then my religion tells me that you must pray for him.) It is more useful than Cindy Sheehan yelling, “To hell with Obama!” on national TV.
This is the path I am choosing, whether or not it seems “prophetic” enough for some or not.
I’ve just finished reading Obama’s new plan on Afghanistan. It’s not all bad, but there are definitely things that peace activists must oppose and protest. I’ll start with the good news because peace folk are likely to miss them.
- It refrains from the Bush fantasy that Western-style democracy can be imposed at the point of a gun. I believe in democracy. I even believe in democracy. I also believe, as Glen Stassen and others have pointed out, that spreading democracy is a peacemaking practice. But it cannot be done at the point of a gun, nor imposed from outside a nation. It must be grown from within–and a culture has to be prepared for it. Obama gives up the idea that America can impose a Western democracy on Afghanistan (or Iraq, etc.). Fantasyland is abandoned.
- Obama knows that a purely military solution is impossible. He has a realistic, even classicly conservative, grasp of the limits of military power.
- The plan focuses on making the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists irrelevant in Afghanistan and Pakistan by creating an economy and civil society that does not depend on them. The focus will be to build infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and train civil servants and create small (non-drug) businesses throughout the countryside.
- The plan involves the region, using carrots to get Pakistan involved. It will also take constructive involvement by Iran.
- The plan recognizes that “Taliban” is a broad term and seeks to negotiate with the elements which can be won over, reserving combat for the hardcore that protect al-Qaeda terrorists. Military action is limited to fighting the terrorists rather than trying to do everything.
- The troop escalation is still a military escalation which is likely to be an escalation into a quagmire. It looks far too reminiscent of the initial escalation by JFK into Vietnam or, more recently, the Soviet entrance into Afghanistan.
- I don’t see enough involvement by NATO, the EU, or the United Nations. I especially would want to put UN peacekeepers in blue helmuts for the mission of protecting civilians.
- The plan, even if everything goes perfectly, will take YEARS and WAY TOO MUCH MONEY and TOO MANY LIVES. Obama thinks the alternative is to leave America too vulnerable to terrorist attack, again, but there is neither the money nor the political will for this longterm strategy. IF we had not invaded Iraq and IF we had taken this approach to Afghanistan back in ’02, we may now be approaching an exit these 7+ years later. But we don’t have 7 more years and all the counterinsurgency experts say that it would take at least that long for the counterinsurgency to work.
- Afghan Pres. Karzai likes this plan and that’s a good sign. It may also have popular support, initially, though I doubt anyone’s doing surveys of the Afghan people. But for how long? I think the Afghan people’s tolerance for our presence in their country, especially our MILITARY presence, will not last more than 2 more years, tops. If we stay when they want us to leave, we will TRULY be in an unwinnable quagmire, much like Vietnam.
I urge peace folk to push for Obama to double or triple the civilian components of the plan and to internationalize (via NATO and the UN) the military presence–and to give us a timeline and an exit strategy. Congress should demand the same before releasing any funds for this plan. We stand at a crossroads: This can either be the beginning of an end to the Afghan war or the beginning of a deeper swamp of war.
Let me clear: We are going to need bodies in the streets protesting the military aspects of this. Get out your “Troops Home Now!” signs. This struggle will be difficult. Wage PEACE!
P.S. It’s not helpful to attack other peace folk. That’s an “epic fail” way to lose. We need to be hard on the problem, not each other. I also see no need AT THIS POINT in spewing anger at Obama. That’s not a way to get him to listen. I wrote polite (but firm) open letters to Bush against invading Iraq and proposed alternatives. I never liked him, but tried not to personalize my opposition. I only grew personally angry after he dismissed 1 million people (myself included) in the street in opposition to the invasion as “a focus group.” (Also, Bush lied to the people. Obama has not. He may be completely wrong, but he has not misled us. He ALWAYS told us he would add troops to Afghanistan.)
Yes, I wrote that. No, I have not been a big fan of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and I was against Obama appointing her to Secretary of State. (Of course, I’m happy that my first choice, Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) was passed over, because it would have been far more embarrassing for him to back out of the S of S post due to Federal Elections investigations than it was when he removed himself from Commerce! Sheesh!) I have never shared the rightwing “Clinton hatred” (which has been shifted to Obama), but I was critical of her husband’s presidency (mostly as squandered potential for good) and her candidacy for the presidency.
But I think a “prophetic stance” that ONLY yells at politicians when they screw up is counterproductive. One should ALWAYS send notes and phone calls of appreciation when a politician, ANY politician, does something right. It greatly increases the chances they will continue to do so.
So, today, I sent Secretary Clinton a thank-you note because in Israel this week, she publicly criticized the government of Israel and the government of the city of Jerusalem for demolitions and planned demolitions of Palestinain homes in East Jerusalem. She rightly called it a violation of Israel’s agreements on the so-called “road map” to a two state peace. (She did not say, as she could have, that it was a violation of International Law and about a thousand UN resolutions, including many agreed to by several U.S. administrations of both parties, but she said something!) Make no mistake–as hard as it will be for my international readers to understand, in the U.S. context this is an act of political courage. Secretary Clinton will get TONS of hatemail and criticism from rightwing pro-Israel-no-matter-what groups and their well-financed media allies over this. ANY criticism, no matter how small, of Israel by an American politician carries a political price that it does not anywhere else–not even IN Israel.
So, peace folk and progressives, whatever we feel about Secretary Clinton overall–or the evolving Obama administration’s approach to Middle East peace–we need to put all that aside and have Secretary Clinton’s back on this one. Take time out, now, and email her and thank her for speaking out against Palestinian home demolitions. If you are one of my international readers, please join in this effort. If you want a different kind of U.S. presence in the world, you need to cheer us when we do the right thing (even baby steps) as well as criticize us when we do wrong. (You can also suggest other concrete steps for her to take. I urged her to speak out against the Israeli wall that eats up Palestinian land and turns the West Bank into a giant open air prison and I urged her to publicly call for Hamas to join a unity govt. with Fatah so that they could air their concerns to the U.S. through Fatah without the U.S. having to negotiate with a group it considers terrorist. Baby steps–but those get the ball rolling.)
Now, after emailing or phoning the Secretary and thanking her, send a copy of that email to President Obama, and (if you are a U.S. citizen) to your Congressperson and Senators–regardless of party. Then write your local newspaper and commend Secretary Clinton’s words in public. If you are a Christian minister or Jewish Rabbi, PLEASE take this last extra step–because the media will be flooded with condemnations of Clinton’s words by rightwing Jews and Christians who claim to speak for everyone of their faith. If you belong to a group like Churches for a Middle East Peace or Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, or Rabbis for Human Rights, etc., put that in your message. It will raise awareness of the diversity of views and, hopefully, change the nature of the debate in the media and Congress.
See the full text and video of his speech here.
This is not everything a Christian pacifist and nonviolent activist like myself could want, but it is a GREAT step in the right direction. He has adjusted the timeline: “Combat” troops out by August 2010; Residual force (mostly for training Iraqis) of 30-50,000 (seems large); ALL troops out by 2011–respecting the Status of Forces Agreement Bush made with Iraq. We’ve been in Iraq WAAAAY too long and if we in the peace movement can put pressure into stepping up the pace, we should. But ALL troops out is more than Obama would commit to as a candidate.
Some on the left and some peace folk are purists who are never satisfied when politicians make good steps. Others are “true believers” who never want to criticize their leader. I think both stances are a mistake. I have criticisms to make, but I want us to notice the good and celebrate it first:
- Obama was against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. This is important to note because this marks a first in U.S. history: The very first time that a principled opponent of a particular war was elected president WHILE THAT WAR WAS STILL ONGOING–and while campaigning to end it.
- The economic crisis (recession, depression–who knows) helps him work to end it–we simply cannot afford this war any longer.
- The phase out will involve the United Nations and the surrounding countries–a huge change from Bush’s “go it alone” policies.
- Honoring the SOFU with Iraq, honoring Iraqi sovereignty, is a major step in rebuilding our compliance with international law.
- Obama’s withdrawal timetable now has the support of McCain and other Republicans! I know, this surprised me, too, especially since McCain spent the entire general election campaign last year calling Obama “naive” on foreign policy and suggesting that he wouldn’t care if we were in Iraq 100 years! But this bi-partisan support–even if the number of GOP supporters is few–will make it harder for the rightwing hawks (in and out of the military) to pressure Obama into slowing down the withdrawal or stopping it–or make political hay out of his keeping this campaign pledge.
- On the other hand, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are expressing concern about the number of residual troops in Iraq and the speed of withdrawal. This is also good news on several levels: It shows Congress reasserting itself as a separate and EQUAL branch of government again (per the Constitution, remember?) even with the same party in charge of both houses of Congress and the presidency. It also gives us allies in pushing for quicker, more complete withdrawal. (Pelosi noted in that interview that the House voted to end the Iraq war repeatedly in ’07 and ’08, but a timetable got out of the Senate only once and Bush vetoed it. She did not say why she then kept impeachment off the table–since that could have ended the war sooner.)
Now for the major criticism: As we are winding down Iraq, we are increasing troops in Afghanistan–and without much national or Congressional debate, with no timeline, no clearly defined mission. I have mentioned before that I believe Afghanistan could be for Obama what Vietnam was for LBJ–the Achilles’ heal that undoes much of the good he tries to do domestically. We need to Get Afghanistan Right! and that means recognizing that there is no military solution–even if there theoretically was one when Bush largely abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq–a nation uninvolved with al-Qaeda or 9/11 and which was no threat to us!
Watch the video, sign the petition, and contact your members of Congress to Rethink Afghanistan! New polling suggests that the American people want to find a way out of Afghanistan, too–certainly by 2012 at the very latest.
Meanwhile, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), points out that the country needs to get ready for the return of these vets. We already have too many homeless and jobless vets and these returning soldiers will be coming back into the worst economy in decades. We aren’t prepared for their return and MUST get that way, quickly.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to the Middle East next week to begin work on peace in the region and between Palestine and Israel particularly. It is my hope that she lays the groundwork for a full Middle East Peace Summit by July–with full participation by the Arab League, the EU, the UN, the US, etc.–and with Pres. Obama front and center in this process. (A July date gives time for planning, is during Congressional recess so Obama can’t work on more of his domestic challenges just then, and is hopefully soon enough that the hawks of the new Israeli cabinet will not be able to sabatouge things. Hawks from other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, however don’t seem to operate on a predictable timetablee. Much to pray about here!)
Overall, these are positive developments. Now, as peacemakers and persons of faith, let’s do our part to keep things moving in these directions.
Jimmy Carter, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Full disclosure: 1. Jimmy Carter is one of my heroes. I voted for him when I turned 18 and took his loss to a B-grade movie actor almost as hard as he did. 2. Like Carter, I have a deep passion for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine–a just peace.
Those biases do not blind me, however. I recognize that Carter was only an average president (you have to win reelection to have a chance at being a great president, even though second terms are usually much rougher than first ones). Since his good diplomatic skills abroad were not matched with an ability to get even his own party to cooperate domestically, perhaps Carter would have made a better Secretary of State than president. Even his human rights policy wasn’t perfect–if he hadn’t backed the Shah, perhaps the Iranian revolution would not have turned in an anti-Western direction and history would have been very different. Carter’s great record in his post-presidency cannot make up for the average job he did as president.
I also know that the odds are stacked against a Middle East peace deal. In fact, the odds have been getting worse since 2001: After the collapse of the Clinton-backed talks, Ariel Sharon deliberately provoked the Second (more violent) Intifada and Arafat and the Palestinians played right into that. Whereas the first Intifada had been led by a nonviolent wing (allthough the Western media focused on those, like the stone throwing youths, who broke nonviolent discipline), the 2nd Intifada centered on suicide bombers–many of them women! Then came the Likud election of Netanyahu and then Sharon and things got continually bloodier while Bush didn’t care. Then came the re-occupation of the West Bank, Arafat a prisoner in his own compound, civilian deaths skyrocketed and the suicide bombings increased. Then Israel built its “security fence,” a huge wall that ate up miles of Palestinian land and turned large sections of the West Bank into giant open air prisons. Plus the constant bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Then, after Arafat’s death, the Palestinians became frustrated with a weakened Fatah in charge of the Palestinian Authority and elected Hamas–which led to an ever worse situation. Civil war broke out in the Territories and Fatah claimed the West Bank and Hamas got Gaza. The Hamas rocket attacks (even if mostly missing any targets) were designed to provoke a disproportionate response and they succeeded–With the Israeli total war against Gaza. Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, Israeli politics takes a sharp turn to the FAR Right. For although the Kamida Party won the most votes, they don’t have enough to form a government, not even in coalition with Labor. So, Netanyahu and Likud will return to power in coalition with rightwingers so extreme (like Avigdor Liebermann) that even the ISRAELI press likens them to “Jewish fascists.” In such a context, can any peace plan be realistic?
When Carter promoted his book and plan on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show (my favorite cable news program, hosted by the only out-lesbian in U.S. broadcast journalism–a young Rhodes scholar with a D.Phil. in political science from Oxford and a veteran of the liberal radio network, Air America–and a quirky sense of humor), Maddow asked him if the (then-upcoming) Israeli elections would make a difference in the chances for peace. He said that the particular cabinet would mean more, although he was clear that a Likud victory would be a setback. But Carter puts his hope in several facts which give us a window (but narrow one) for a lasting peace:
- Despite all the negative events and crimes on both sides, vast majorities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide (upward of 80%) still favor a two-state peace solution. No matter who is in power in either side, those numbers MUST push them to peace–especially if the U.S. and Europe prods them.
- The basic shape of a successful, lasting peace deal has been agreed to IN PRINCIPLE by all parties since the late ’70s: The Israel-Palestine borders return to the pre-1967 ones (these are the only borders that have been recognized by international law); Israel removes the Jewish settlements from Palestine and either removes the wall or moves it BACK to the border, NOT cutting off any Palestinian land; Palestine is an unarmed state except for police/security forces; Palestine gets a seaport; Jerusalem is a shared city. These are agreed to by ALL the major parties–the question is how to get there.
- A major sticking point is the problem of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Carter suggests removing only about 85% of them, leaving the settlements just outside Jerusalem. IN RETURN, Israel would trade Palestine an equal amount of land, acre by acre, to create a corridor that connects the West Bank and Gaza, making Palestine a far more viable nation state.
- Another major sticking point is the “right of return.” When Israel was founded in 1948, and again during the 1967 war, thousands of Palestinians lost their homes–some of which had been owned for 2000 years. Under international law, such refugees and their descendants are entitled to return to those homes. But if ALL the Palestinians returned to homes in Israel, they would outnumber Jewish Israelis, making a Jewish state impossible. Carter suggests that Palestine could accept in its borders the majority of returnees. Others could be compensated monetarily for lost homes.
- A solution of this kind has been proposed for years. A few years ago, the Arab League sweetened the deal for Israel: IF they would agree to such a two-state peace, then EVERY MEMBER of the Arab League would not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but cease harboring pro-Palestinian terrorist groups and open FULL DIPLOMATIC relations with Israel. This is something Israel has wanted for over 50 years: It would greatly strengthen its security and economy. To date, only Egypt and Jordan, out of the Arab League, recognize Israel–and the recent Gaza war has led many in their publics to call for cutting off these diplomatic ties.
- There are Arabic citizens of Israel, not just in Palestine. Because Israel’s birthrate is low and Diaspora Jews no longer are moving to Israel, the high-birth Arab Israelis are threatening to soon outnumber the Jewish Israelis. This would be sped up considerably if Israel simply tried to annex the Palestinian territories. This would mean the death of a Jewish state. This demographic clock (which all in Israel know about) pushes even the most hawkish Israeli to try to find a peaceful two state solution before it runs out and demographics destroy the Israeli experiment as 50 plus years of war never could.
- There is also a clock for Palestine: the desperation and despair of the youth. The rise in suicide bombings is a sign of a lack of hope for the future. Between the settlements and the Israeli army, Palestine could soon find it impossible to HAVE a viable state.
- The Obama administration, unlike the Bush administration, is very interested in a two-state peace. Obama did not reveal just HOW MUCH he was interested in this until after the election. During the campaign he said far more about the imperative of U.S. protection of Israel than he ever did about the rights of Palestinians. It is now clear that he was keeping the pro-Israel Right from using his concern for a Middle East peace as a “wedge issue” to win the election and put the hawkish McCain in the White House. But since the election, and even more since inauguration, Obama has signalled that U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian relations are changing: He placed his first presidential overseas phone call to the head of the Palestinian Authority. He appointed George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace. (Mitchell, a former U. S. Senator, was instrumental in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. He also has street cred with both Palestinians and Israelis.) Obama has warned Israel against more Jewish settlements in the territories–even threatening to cut off U.S. military support.
So, while making peace in the Holy Land will be hard, it is not impossible. Carter’s book is a step-by-step plan to get it done and he has been advising Obama on this since the election. And Carter, we remember, negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords which led directly to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty– not one line of which has ever been violated.
It seems to me that the level of distrust between Palestinians and Israelis is the major obstacle to peace–and requires outside intervention. The U.S. must be a major player not because of any U.S. peace virtues (if we even HAVE any) but because we are the one nation Israel CANNOT ignore–they depend heavily upon us for economic and military support. The European Union and the Arab League must be deeply involved because Palestinians need them.
Like Carter, I have deep faith-based reasons to care deeply about this: Christians are to be peacemakers; we have a sense of solidarity with Palestinian Christians–many of whose communities date back to the very first generation of Christians; we have a sense of solidarity with Jews because our faith is the daughter of Judaism; we have (or should have) a sense of solidarity with mainstream Muslims because ours is a sister faith. We want a peaceful land that is Holy to all 3 of the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths. We won’t agree on whether Jesus is the Messiah or the Son of God (God has no children, say Muslims and the Trinity is disguised polytheism say Jews), but we have much else in common and deep reasons to see peace come to the Holy Land. For Carter this is the cause of his life because he believes it is the very will of God.
But American citizens, whether or not they share anything like Carter’s religious reasons for working for Middle East peace, have deep reasons of self interest to push for success here. 1)The plight of the Palestinians is the NUMBER ONE recruiting tool for extremist, anti-Western Islamist groups that promote violence and terrorism. Some of them, like Hezbollah, are sincere, but many are simply cynically using the Palestinians for their own ends. In any case, a two-state peace robs these groups of their single biggest recruiting tool. It robs Hezbollah of a reason to exist! As Arab League nations said to then-Sec. of State Colin Powell in 2002 when he was trying to recruit allies for the invasion of Iraq–it would be better to make peace between Israel and Palestine. Such a peace is the single-biggest blow to Islamist terorists possible. 2) The U.S.’ apparent one-sided support for Israel channels this concern for the Palestinians into a hatred of America if such hatred were not there previously. 3) The Israel/Palestine fued and series of wars and crises is a drain on U.S. resources: in terms of the level of military support to Israel (our largest % of foreign aid, of all types, is military aid to Israel) and in terms of constant drain on our diplomatic resources. 4) The constant humanitarian crises in Palestine is also a drain on our resources–an economically stable and peaceful Palestine would not need such support from either Europe or the U.S. 5) We get a constant influx of Palestinian refugees into the United States–it’s amazing that none of the anti-immigrant Lou Dobbs types don’t rail against this. Our already over stressed social safety net (whose strength was eroded by GOP fiscal priorities long before the current economic crisis) doesn’t need the added burden–and it is inevitable that a few extremists come in with the legitimate refugees. 6) A prosperous and peaceful Israel and Palestine could import U.S. exports, helping us get out of recession.
So, there are many compelling pragmatic as well as moral reasons to invest heavily in Middle East peace. It won’t be easy–and the recent Israeli elections are the biggest obstacle since the Palestinians elected Hamas! But it CAN be done–and Jimmy Carter’s book outlines the way forward.
UPDATE: Even as he is forming his government, new PM Netanyahu is telling reporters that he will work with Obama for peace with Palestine. While his past record should make us skeptical, we should also see this as a hopeful sign that even Netanyahu realizes that the political context has changed. Now, if only Obama will push all parties equally instead of returning to the usual U.S. carrot and stick policy: all carrots for Israel and all sticks for Palestine.