Dreaming of ‘never again’

Peace is the very large elephant in the room at Remembrance season. We solemnly commemorate the end of the ‘war to end all wars’, ‘remember’ its horrors, and say ‘never again’. Do we mean it? Or do we mean ‘never again – well, not quite like that anyway…no trenches, no ‘over the top’, no conscription, no under-16s…preferably minimal loss to our troops…but other than that, maybe’? The very next time a world situation threatens our interests, the tanks and bombers are wheeled out again. We develop weapons and armour that minimise our losses, but we make little attempt at peace.

The truth is, we’re lazy – we want peace to come to us. I want people to treat me with respect, be polite to me, get out of my way, do what I want them to do, but I’m less keen on going out of my way to do that for others. It doesn’t come naturally, it can be hard work and can be costly in all sorts of ways, especially to my pride. Peace is hard work; it takes effort, energy, time, and money.

Just as the English language struggles to differentiate between different types of love, it only has one word for peace. I’ve come across 2 other types of peace – the Latin ‘pax’, the absence of conflict, and the Hebrew/Arabic ‘shalom’/’salaam’, restored relationships. If we want peace, if we mean ‘never again’, are we content with pax or are we serious that we want shalom? Pax could arguably be achieved uneasily by bombing an enemy into submission, or at least fragmenting and weakening them sufficiently that they cannot fight back for the time being. Pax is a ceasefire. Shalom on the other hand takes work, risky and difficult work, and a lot of resources. It would mean dialogue, trying to build understanding, find common ground, and together thoroughly root out and tackle the underlying causes of the conflict. It would mean going beyond ceasefire towards justice, and beyond even an end to hostility towards friendship.

In Luke 6:27-38, Jesus challenges us to love our enemies. It’s a deeply challenging passage. The more I look at Jesus, the less I can reconcile military action against our enemies with His words. His response to violence looks like a challenge to the enemy to do their worst to see if they will make a monster of themselves, and rather than condemning them, to do good for them in return with generosity, to seek for them what He would want for Himself. I’ve come to the conclusion that I, we, need to dream bigger in order to pursue this kind of attitude to others and extend it to all whilst still trying to find a way to protect innocents from harm.

I believe in redemption too! Every life is precious – the worst individual can change, and although it doesn’t excuse the evil things they may have done, it brings at least some chance for healing. I’ve been given second chance on second chance, and however much I hate what some people do, even all that they might stand for, I’m still not comfortable with the idea of denying them a second chance, or at least a chance to confront them with the error of their ways. If we kill, we condemn them, whether ‘to hell’ or to simply go down in history as ‘evil’. At worst we make them a martyr, an inspiration to those that agree with them and an excuse for revenge. If we capture them alive and try to work their issues through with them we at least give them a chance to change, even if they don’t take it. What a story they’d have if they took that chance! And what an opportunity for real change in the situation!

Can we use our imaginations? Let’s dream, and try to find a bigger vision of how the world could be, that would really mean taking ‘never again’ seriously, honouring the horror of war and working for true shalom peace instead.

We’ve all been brought up immersed in the idea that the way to tackle injustice is to kill the baddies, from our very earliest children’s books, games and cartoons, through history lessons to Hollywood films. We’re so blinded by it that faced with real-world injustices we cannot see any alternative but inaction, so we see only the choice between war and ignore.

In any situation of injustice, the choice is bigger than ‘do nothing’ or ‘kill the baddies’. Apart from anything, the reality is that the world is not neatly divided into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in the way a cartoon world is, which should be obvious but really isn’t. Our own citizens can take part in atrocities, our own troops are capable of ‘friendly fire’ and even war crimes, ‘enemy combatants’ are capable of heroism and compassion, and there are likely to be unwilling participants on both sides of a war. However subhuman a person’s actions, they still remain human, just like us, and to ignore this is dangerous as it allows us to justify the ‘removal’ of a human person as the removal of evil.

I wrote to MP prior to the recent vote on military action in Iraq, asking him to press the government to put more resources behind peace building and real, lasting conflict resolution, and he wrote back arguing why doing nothing about the atrocities taking place there would be criminal* – I agree; was that what I was asking for?! Given no alternative other than inaction, perhaps he’s right that war is necessary. I don’t know. I’m glad I’m not the one having to make the call on which is the lesser evil. But peace building is anything but doing nothing! I’m so steeped in the idea of ‘kill the baddies’ myself that even after a lot of thinking about this I still can’t see what the elusive third way would be (there’s probably several ‘third ways’ anyway), but I believe it exists, despite being something that would need a lot of effort and investment**. It will take our own effort and investment too, personally – we can’t leave it to our governments, as they, like the rest of us, will tend to see only the two immediate choices. We need to find ways of inspiring others, including politicians, to dream bigger and begin to think of the possibility of peace.

I’ve begun to wonder, would we make the same decisions to go to war if the injustice or atrocity we are wanting to tackle was happening in our own country, our own communities? Would we send in the bombers to tackle a home-grown terrorist network? Would we destroy our own infrastructure to weaken a home-grown insurgence? Would we risk killing our own innocent citizens to make sure we ‘took out’ all the militant citizens? I’m not sure we would – I think we’d do anything we could to try to avoid using those kinds of tactics, even if protecting innocent citizens and our own infrastructure meant an extreme mobilisation of resources. I imagine we’d try to take the ‘enemy’ alive as far as possible, try them, lock them up, and work to build bridges with the communities they arose from to try to find solutions. Ideally, maybe even try a reconciliation process between them and those they intended to harm. But I’m dreaming…

I genuinely believe war is no solution – it only eases our conscience by allowing us to say ‘well, at least we did something, we tried.’ War doesn’t achieve peace***, it just achieves a temporary pax, on top of suffering, injustice and a sense of righteousness on both sides that usually leads to a recurrence of conflict. We have to invest in finding a third way to shalom instead. Dream with me. Isn’t peace worth it? 🙂

*incidentally that’s exactly what we’re doing about the ongoing conflict(s) in central Africa where arguably worse atrocities have been taking place for years…

**It would probably mean moving our investments away from arms too. The even bigger elephant in the room is the hold the arms trade has over global politics. ‘I heard men talking about grain to feed the world, saying there’s a way to fight this war without wounds, but that won’t sell arms’ – Verra Cruz’s excellent ‘Strange Food’

***I like the Spearhead lyric, ‘you can bomb the word to pieces but you can’t bomb it into peace’.

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