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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

How do you know that a war is a war?

 The following post was put up on an Ekklesia Project website  in response to the Nobel Peace Prize address by President Obama in 2009 and is now about to be taken down. I have reproduced Stanley Hauerwas's comments because there are a couple of critical issues he raises that I think  are worth noting.

You tube Obama speech 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Do You Know a War is a War?

by Stanley Hauerwas
Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the
Divinity School of Duke University

I think President Obama’s speech was remarkable. It was so because he makes articulate the defense of war and that is unusual for someone in his position. But the kind of defense he makes, he admirably acknowledges, is required by his being in a particular position, that is, the Presidency of the United States. The question for Christians is: how did he get in that position? Could he have been elected if he had said something as basic as “I am a Christian and Christians have a problem with war”?

Instead Obama says what a President is required to say. As head of a state he reserves the right to unilaterally go to war if the people he has pledged to protect are in jeopardy. Yet he well knows he is not the head of just any state, but America. He clearly thinks that to the extent “peace is possible,” America has done it. He is, therefore, not hesitant to represent a country that thinks it is in control of history. Thus his claim early in the speech that he believes we can bend history in the direction of justice. That seems such a worthy ideal, but it hides an arrogance that can result in imperialism.

There is, however, another perspective that suffuses the rhetoric of the speech. He genuinely feels the horror of war. Nowhere is his humanity revealed more clearly than in the paragraph early in the speech in which he acknowledges that because we are at war some will be killed, but others will have to kill. I thought it quite telling for him to recognize that part of the tragedy of war is not that you may be killed but that you may have to kill. The pathos of such a recognition can be a resource to make war less likely.

But there is a deep conceptual issue that he does not raise concerning war. That issue is: how do you know a war is a war? He begins with the claim that war in one form or another appeared with the first man. One assumes he’s referring to Cain and Abel. But what happened between Cain and Abel was not war. It was murder. His lack of clarity about what distinguishes war from other kinds of violence becomes the basis for his claim that because evil exists then war is necessary. Thus his suggestion that war is simply “there,” requiring acknowledgement. To recognize the necessity of war is to simply acknowledge history. But that is simply an assertion without argument.

I realize it seems odd, but I think one of the crucial critical questions for those that would so justify war is to ask them what they mean by “war.” I have tried to raise the question by asking, “If a war is not just, what is it?” The question is designed to challenge the assumption that war is just “out there.” Those who use just war criteria often seem to assume war is just “out there.” You then see how many of the criteria work, but even if you only get two out of six (depending on how you count) it is assumed it is still a war and therefore has moral justification. But why should that be assumed? If a war deserves the description “war” surely it must have been just from the beginning.

Though Obama assumes war is a necessary response to evil, he also thinks it can be regulated by just war considerations. He notes that later philosophers, clerics, and statesmen sought to regulate the destructive power of war, resulting in the development of just war criteria. But it is interesting that in turning to the criteria he doesn’t offer a clear statement of all the criteria. In particular he does not mention that the war must be declared by a legitimate authority, that the aims of the war must be declared to the enemy, and the intention to go to war cannot be different than the declaration. These criteria are very important if “just war,” as Paul Ramsey argued, is to be limited by making war serve a limited political end. That the intention to go to war be declared means, moreover, that war can never be fought for unconditional surrender. These are the kinds of considerations that Obama should have engaged if he was to give us a better understanding of what he means by war.

I suspect Obama thinks the crucial moral distinction is between wars between armies and wars between nations where civilians become blurred with combatants. He certainly would prefer wars between armies, and he may think just war is closer to that. But he needs to be clearer than he was in this speech about why he prefers the former. One assumes it is primarily because the latter involves civilian deaths.

While acknowledging the importance of King and Gandhi he nonetheless thinks that, though it is an evil, war is necessary and as he puts is,” it is on some level an expression of human feeling.” I have no idea what he means by “an expression of human feeling,” though I assume it suggests that there is a justice that shapes the necessity to go to war. He even underwrites the view that war is somehow fought for peace. But if just war thinkers are correct, the idea that war should be fought for peace is a mistake. War should not be fought for peace, but rather for relative justice. If Reinhold Niebuhr is informing his understanding of the necessity of war, it seems that we should be a bit more “realistic”.

Of course the idealism that is shaping his justification for war is extremely dangerous. Thus his claim that a “just peace” should be based on the inherent right and dignity of every individual. He then underwrites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a basis for accomplishing the peace that war makes possible. But to make rights the rationale for going to war will make war even more difficult to control. It may be, as he maintains, that peace is unstable if most rights are denied. But it is just as likely that claims for rights will lead to what some call war.

Obama’s idealism, I thought, was most apparent in the paragraph where he praises Nixon for dealing with Mao, John Paul II for reaching out to Walesa, and Reagan for his embrace of perestroika. He is right, of course, that you never get to choose between good and evil, but it seems to me he’s going to need a more complex case than the examples this paragraph provides. He needs better examples because of the claim that America is exceptional just to the extent that we were always an aspiration with commitments that are universal. That is a deep unrealism that can lead to war. So his speech comes full circle, back to the beginning in which he asserts that America is the people who have bent history in the direction of justice.

That the speech ends with appeals to love I suppose seems a good. But, again, I worry that such appeals make peace an ideal which war becomes the means to achieve.

Overall I think this is a remarkable speech that we would all do well to attend to. I plan to use it as the first reading for a seminar on War and Peace I will be teaching next semester. I continue to think that peace should be a more determinative reality than war. And hopefully Obama’s articulate defense of war will provide grist for that mill.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Interesting reflection from the blog Journey with Jesus by Dan Clendenin on "Transformed Non-conformity"
 Non-conformity by itself is nothing special. Here in California where I live, non-conformists are everywhere. They ride funny bikes, experiment with alternative energy, eat organic foods, dress down instead of up, and flaunt what they think is an independent spirit, but which often is merely a different type of social conformity. Sometimes, says King, non-conformity is little more than exhibitionism. In contrast, the non-conformity that Paul describes in Romans 12 has a specific direction, which is Christ-likeness through a “renewed mind.”

           The French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) encouraged believers to move from being "negatively maladjusted" to the world to being "positively maladjusted." King says something similar: “There are some things in our world to which men [sic] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men [sic] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” Christian non-conformity, in other words, has a specific direction.


 Hope for our world rests in creatively and positively maladjusted believers, says King. This week’s text from Exodus 1:8–2:10 provides an example of nonconformity in relation to the powers of this world, in contrast to conformity to God’s redemptive purposes. The Israelites were in Egyptian bondage, increasing in number and power, when Pharaoh gave the order for infanticide — to terminate all the male Hebrew births. But the midwives defied the state authorities because, the text says, “they feared God” rather than Pharaoh (Exodus 1:17). Later, when asked what had happened, they covered up their civil disobedience by lying (v. 19).

A hopeless confusion - current debates about marriage

I have great difficulty getting involved with current debates about granting the right to marriage to same sex couples. The debate from my point of view is hopelessly confused and to line up on one side or the other in the debate is but to remain enmeshed in the confusion and to leave entangled what needs disentangling, the respective roles and responsibilities of the sate and the churches, and any other group for that matter.

The historical and theological issues at stake are sketched helpfully in a piece by Simon Barrow What Future for Marriage? on the Ekklesia web site.

The interests of the state and the church in issues of relationships should be distinct, but we still have a massive confusion which goes back to the Christendom settlement. The state has responsibilities around assuring the protection, safety and well being of children, not directly but in holding parents and guardians responsible, and for legal issues around property.the church has responsibilities around supporting its members in the vocation of christian marriage and in carrying out their commitments to faithful discipleship in that role. As Simon Barrow observes:
What is called 'marriage' today is essentially a civil contract which can be dissolved or re-entered as many times as necessary. Superimposed on that is a Christian ideal of lifelong fidelity which many accept as a 'nice idea' but which is not necessarily what they are really choosing, and whose basis in a community of faith they often do not understand or accept. Ekklesia
 Simon's recommendation, for which I have a good deal of sympathy, is that we disentangle the respective roles of church and community groups and the state around the issue of marriage.

  1. Our current confusion between the civil (secular), juridical (legal) and sacramental (religious) meanings of marriage arises from the 'Christendom' assumption that religious understandings can be superimposed on society through the state, and vice versa.
     
  2. It is positive to enable people to express their civil commitments in legal terms which reflect the variety of long-term partnerships people are actually forming - and which offer as much stability, especially for children, as possible.
     
  3. What the church calls marriage is not just another name for a legal and civil arrangement - it is specifically about the kind of relationships made possible by God's love and the community of people who seek to be transformed by this love through worship, common life, mutual forgiveness, and discipleship.
     
  4. If you try to force everyone in society into a one-size-fits-all legal arrangement you risk devaluing what is possible for different kinds of partnerships, sell short the meaning of Christian marriage - and end up in something of a no-win mess. That is where we are right now. Ekklesia
And that is why I find it hard to enter into the current debate about same sex marriage. To take a position on the debate as it currently exists is to remain within the entangled confusions of the Christendom settlement. Much of the churches stance on marriage in the current debates is theologically confused and historically ill informed. Christians have no stake, in my view, in upholding the intervention by the state in upholding issues of Christian meaning with respect to relationships.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Thinking about "people smuggling" and taking care of our language

I have been thinking a lot about the issue of public policy about asylum seekers and the language in which that debate is being conducted. In the New Testament Christians are enjoined to be careful with the language that they use and that injunction surely applies as much to the language that we use in debate about public policy as it does to the language that we use in personal relationships. The need for honesty, truthfulness and respect are relevant characteristics that follow from this injunction.

The term "smuggling" as it is normally used carries connotations of attempts to conceal the items being smuggled from the relevant authorities. The use of the term "people smuggling" with reference to the activities of sailors bringing boat loads of refugees, seeking asylum, seems to me to be totally inaccurate and misleading as an account both factually and morally of what is taking place when a boatload of refugees arrives at Christmas Island.

Those bringing the people to Australia in those boats do not seek to conceal their arrival from the authorities - the point of their arrival is to bring the presence of the refugees to the attention of the authorities at the earliest possible moment after their arrival, so as to make their claim for asylum.

The use of the term "people smuggling" it seems to me is designed to ensure that the activity is judged to be morally obnoxious before the debate even starts. The moral status of the activity of the people supplying transport to asylum seekers needs some careful analysis. The activity may be illegal, it may be reckless, but that does not automatically make the activity immoral, let alone evil. It is difficult to see how the later characterisation could stand, considering that from the point of view of the law, if a person's claim to asylum is acknowledged by the Australian authorities to be a valid one, the means of entry to Australia is not regarded as illegal.

How the activity of assisting refugees to make a valid claim for protection can be regarded as an evil is something I struggle to understand. The activity may be illegal, disruptive of Australian Government policy, reckless of human life, and disorderly. It may indeed be any, and all of the above. But evil?

The other issue that emerges from paying attention to the language and focus of the public debate, is that we are now not discussing the question of how we can achieve a compassionate and just policy with respect to refugees seeking asylum. The policy debate is now framed almost entirely with respect to the effect of policy decisions on the activities of those termed "people smugglers".

The obsession of the Australian Government, media and public at large with this group of people is indeed amazing to behold. The concern with their activities has so hi-jacked the policy debate that we have lost focus on the underlying realities that are driving refugees to seek asylum.

Giving the attention being paid to this group it seems strange that we do not yet have a "Minister for 'People Smuggling'" because that is what the Minister for Immigration seems to have in fact become.
The national obsession with this relatively small group of people is now bordering on the bizarre, in terms of the actual numbers involved and the impact of their activities on the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia, in terms of both absolute numbers of those who seek asylum in Australia and as a proportion of the total of long term arrivals in Australia under the various immigration programs. We are now spending large amounts of public funds on a range of "non-solutions" that are totally unnecessary.

In such a situation how might Christians respond? We should start with trying to examine carefully the language of public debate and begin unpacking the truthfulness of the assumptions that are embedded in it and the accuracy of the accounts of the policy and moral issues that form much of the media debate around asylum seekers. The call to truthfulness and care in our speech demands no less. Beyond that we can get involved in our local community with groups that seek to meet the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Get to meet refugees and asylum seekers, listen to their stories, and begin to understand a little of how they see the world.








Saturday, 13 August 2011

Violence, religion and the modern state


What was interesting about the media reporting of the massacre in Norway was that the religious identity of supposed perpetrators emerged in the reporting right from the start. If it was not Islamic terrorists that were responsible as first thought, the attention turned to the "fundamentalist Christian".

The political theologian William Cavanaugh has some helpful comments on this tendency. In his review of Charles Kimball's book When Religion Becomes Evil. Kimball, he observes ... wants to proscribe religious justifications of vilence because he belives that religion, with its absolutist tendencies is prone to fan the flames of violence.
... The problem is that there remain in Kimball's view, perfectly legitimate non-religious, or "secular" ways of justifying violence. Far from a condemnation of violence, Kimball's analysis results in a selective condemnation of certain kinds of violence, labelled "religion". the problem is not violence as such; there are still occasionally good reasons for bombing or shooting people. To qualify as good these reasons must be "secular".  "Secular" violence. however regrettable, is sometime necessary. "Religious" violence is always reprehensible.  (p45 )“Sins of Omission: What ‘Religion and Violence’ Arguments Ignore.” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture 6:1 (Spring 2004): 34–50.
The conclusion Cavanaugh draws that is relevant to the issue of considering the way we talk about the massacre in Norway, by an individual, or the current activities of the Syrian army, to quote an example at random, is that if we really want to address the problem of violence in the modern world, we must treat violence as the problem, whoever is responsible for it.An adequate approach to the probem he argues,
... would be to be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices, jihad, the invisible hand of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the  role of the United States as a world wide liberator turn violent. The point is not simply that "secular" violence should be given equal time with "religious" violence. The point is that the distinction between "secular' and "religious" violence is unhelpful, misleading and mystifying and should be avoided altogether. (p50)


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Of gods and men - reflecting on the film through Revelation

Occasionally a film will engage me deeply, its story, the characters, the scenes recurring in memory, touching the heart and challenging the conscience. Of gods and men is one of those films. Some friends of mine have been back to see it a second time, already.

As an account of martyrdom, of loving your enemy, and being present with the poor and marginal in the context of a very dirty war on terror in Algeria in the mid 1990's, based on a true story, this is a stunner. It is beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted. A patient exploration of a community of Trappist monks dealing with the issue of what their vocation and commitment to the way of discipleship means in a time of threatening violence and deep injustice. It is a retelling which recaptures the tensions around their decision-making process, in which we are reminded again and again that at the heart of what they are about is the cycle of worship and prayer, the chanting of the psalms and the reading of the scriptures that shapes what they are becoming and what in the end drives their decision to stay with the Muslim village that they continue to serve.

I won't attempt to do a review of the film, or attempt to tell the story in any detail. If you are interested in a range of views, from a diverse bunch of reviewers, from people of faith to those outside, check out the following links. They are some good You=tube extracts of scenes from the movie on some of them.

Interesting Links:
Of Gods and Men (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Of Gods and Men – review | Film | The Guardian
Of Gods and Men « Notes & Quiddities
OF GODS AND MEN (Why we need St. Benedict more than ever) « Ecclesiastical Graffiti
Of Gods And Men (2010,France) « Andygeddon
Of Gods And Men | Movie review: 'Of Gods and Men' - Los Angeles Times
Film review – Of Gods and Men (2010) « Cinema Autopsy
Father James Martin, SJ: “Of Gods and Men” | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS

What I want to do is to just point you to some of the theological issues and biblical context against which, as a Christian, I found myself trying to understand the path that they took.

The film title is taken from  Psalm 82 verses 6-7, underlined. I have reproduced the entire Psalm because I think it is worth thinking about in view of the trajectory of the movie. Who are the gods and who are the men? Is the movie title referring to the pretensions of those who think that violence is the key, as opposed to the monks who seek to treat all, including those who might do them violence as children of God?

 1 God presides in the great assembly;
   he renders judgment among the “gods”:
 2 “How long will you[a] defend the unjust
   and show partiality to the wicked?[b]
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
   uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
 5 “The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
   They walk about in darkness;
   all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
 6 “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
   you are all sons of the Most High.’
7 But you will die like mere mortals;
   you will fall like every other ruler.”

 8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
   for all the nations are your inheritance.

Michael J Gorman in Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Cascade Press, 2011) observes in terms that are relevant to the story in the movie and the rejection by the monks of the offer of protection by the Algerian military, that:
The current dearth of martyrs in the Western church may be welcome, but its accompanying amnesia of past martyrs and our ignorance of martyrs elsewhere in the world are tragic. In addition to failing at practicing the community of saints, this lack also feeds the desire for national heroes and martyrs. In church history, there has also been a strong correspondence between truly Christian heroes and martyrs and the presence of religious-like commitment to the nation state and its heroes and martyrs - ie., civil religion.
This is very relevant in thinking about the rejection by the monks of military protection and of the attempt by the guerillas to bring their weapons with them when they invade the monastery in search of medical assistance,

The Book of Revelation is associated by many Christians with violence and fighting and may seem a strange biblical resource to bring into consideration in the context of non-violent, enemy loving practices of the monks. That association is substantially wrong.

A further consideration of the relevance of the message of Revelation, with its focus on the slain Lamb and the waiting of the saints to the story of this movie is signaled by the comments by Gorman towards the close of his discussion in Reading Revelation Responsibly, in the chapter entitled "Following the Lamb: The Spirituality of Revelation". This account captures much of what the monks were grappling with in reading the decision to stay. To read Revelation correctly is to understand what their stance was all about. Revelation lived out at the end of the twentieth century.
The resistance (discerning, imaginative and self-critical) required of Christians can be likened to warfare in search of victory. But because this victory is of the victorious slaughtered lamb, Christian resistance to empire conforms to the cruciform pattern of Jesus Christ and his apostles and saints, faithful, true, courageous, just and nonviolent. ... It is important here to emphasise how Revelation conveys a spirituality and ethic of non-violence ... Jesus has already demonstrated both how God deals with evil and how god's people are to deal with evil.  ... not in a show of violent power, but in a paradoxical and subversive act of not confronting evil on its own terms. ... Revelation knows that true spiritual existence is warfare, but it defines victory in the cosmic battle as faithfulness. Neither the Lamb, nor his followers fight in any other way than faithfulness , even to the point of suffering and death. (p.183)
The other important resource that fills in some of the background that is not dealt with in the film and assists in coming to grip with the Prior, Christian's approach to Islam, is the wording of a testament written not long before his death.
The folowing testament was composed by Dom Christian de Cherge in Algiers, December 1, 1993 and produced in Tibhirine, January 1, 1994. It was opened on Pentecost Sunday, 1996, shortly after Dom Christian and others of his Trappist community were murdered in Algeria.

In an early scene in the movie he is seen composing this document, visible on the desk are The Rule of St Benedict, The Little Flowers of St Francis and a copy of the Koran.
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.


I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.


I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.


My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.


This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!


And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!