Sunday, December 23, 2007

Challenged to be Peace-Makers!

Christianity Today, December, 2007
Courageous Nonviolence

At the first Christmas, the angels proclaimed, 'Peace on earth.' Just-war and pacifist Christians together can make it happen.

Ron Sider

The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. In Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, Jonathan Glover estimates that 86,000,000 people died in wars fought from 1900 to 1989. That means 2,500 people every day, or 100 people every hour, for 90 years.

In addition to those killed in war, government-sponsored genocide and mass murder killed approximately 120,000,000 people in the 20th century—perhaps more than 80,000,000 in the two Communist countries of China and the Soviet Union alone, according to R. J. Rummel's Statistics of Democide.

It is ironic, then, that the 20th century also produced numerous and stunningly successful examples of nonviolent victories over injustice and oppression. The best-known campaigns are probably those led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. King's nonviolent marchers changed American history. (The fact that the police and National Guard sometimes guarded civil-rights marchers does not change the fact that King's movement was overwhelmingly nonviolent.) And Gandhi's nonviolent campaign defeated the British Empire and won India's independence. In contrast to Algeria's violent independence campaign, in which one in every 10 Algerians died, only one in every 400,000 Indians died in India's nonviolent struggle.

One of the most amazing components of Gandhi's campaign was a huge nonviolent "army" (eventually over 50,000) of Muslim Pathans in the northwestern section of India. These are the same people we now know as the Taliban in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border! Even when the British humiliated them and slaughtered hundreds of them, they remained faithful to Gandhi's nonviolent vision.

There are other examples: In Poland, the nonviolent campaigns of Solidarity, an anti-Communist movement affiliated with the Catholic church, successfully defied and helped defeat the Soviet empire. In the Philippines, a million peaceful demonstrators overthrew the brutal dictatorship of president Ferdinand Marcos. The list of successful 20th century nonviolent campaigns is long.

Considering these successes, one wonders what might happen if the Christian world became serious about exploring the full possibilities of applying nonviolent methods of seeking peace to unjust, violent situations around the world. All Christians claim to believe Jesus when he says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9). But we have not made much use of one demonstrably successful way of making peace.

Recently, the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), made famous by the kidnapping of four team members in Iraq in late 2005, have been working to apply the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and King to conflict situations around the world. At Hebron in the West Bank, a few Jewish settlers live in the midst of the overwhelmingly Palestinian city of Hebron. Taunts, anger, violence, and deaths are frequent.

For 10 years, CPTers have lived in Hebron, seeking to befriend both sides, accompanying those oppressed by violence, sitting in houses threatened with illegal demolition, and walking children to school in neighborhoods where gunfire has too often struck down the wrong targets. CPT teams are defending the rights of native Canadians and Latin American peasants, as well.
The team's work made nightly news when four members were kidnapped by militants in Baghdad. Months later, three were released after the body of Tom Fox was found in the city. Last month marked the second anniversary of that kidnapping. One need not agree with all of CPT's political and theological ideas to conclude that now is the time for the entire Christian community to ask: Could we build on and vastly expand CPT's nonviolent approaches to peacemaking?

Just-war Christians—the vast majority of Christians since the 4th century—have always upheld that war must be a last resort. Before we are to go to war, we must have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives. But how can contemporary just-war Christians claim they have tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives in the face of two hard facts: One, even without much preparation, nonviolent approaches have worked again and again; and two, we have never trained CPT-like teams that could explore the possibilities of nonviolence in a serious, sustained way? In order to engage in a serious, large-scale test of nonviolence, just-war Christians do not have to believe that nonviolence will always prevent war. All they must do is implement their own rule that war must be a last resort.

Pacifists have long claimed they have an alternative to war. But that claim remains empty unless they are willing to risk death, as soldiers do, to stop injustice and bring peace.
The theological commitments of both just-war and pacifist Christians demand that they invest serious time and resources in sustained nonviolent peacemaking. Think of what might have happened before Bosnia or Kosovo exploded in carnage if the Archbishop of Canterbury, top Catholic cardinals (or even the Pope), and leading Orthodox leaders had invited Muslim leaders to join them in leading a few thousand praying, peaceful Christian and Muslim followers into those dangerous places to demand peace.

Christian leaders from all traditions should together issue a call for something that has yet to happen in Christian history: the training and deployment of thousands of CPT-type peacemakers who are committed to using the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and King, inspired by Jesus, in unjust, violent settings around the world.

I know from personal experience that this kind of nonviolent intervention is dangerous. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. was secretly funding thousands of guerillas (called the Contras) who were killing hundreds of Nicaraguan civilians in their attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government. I opposed the Marxist, repressive tendencies of the Sandinista government, but also rejected U.S. funding of the Contras.

So in early 1985, I joined a team from Witness for Peace that visited a Nicaraguan town under attack by the Contras. As we wound our way down the side of the mountain toward the town, we knew a thousand guerillas in the surrounding hills had their binoculars—and perhaps their guns—trained on us. I was scared but believed God had called me to that moment. We arrived safely and the townsfolk told us they slept peacefully that night, believing the Contras would not attack while a team of praying American Christians was there.

If top global Christian leaders (hopefully joined by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others) led a thousand trained, praying, nonviolent peacemakers into the West Bank, the eyes of the world would be on them. Hundreds of millions would be praying for peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. Massive media coverage would pressure both sides to negotiate. The same would happen if Archbishop Tutu led a few thousand praying African Christians, joined by people from other continents, into Zimbabwe to demand that President Mugabe call fair elections.

If Christians with both just-war and pacifist convictions truly mean what they have been saying for centuries about war and peace, then they have no choice. Nonviolence has worked. It's time to invest large amounts of money and time in serious training and deployment. We cannot know ahead of time what will happen. But we already know that unless we do this, our Christian rhetoric about war will be both hypocritical and dishonest.

It's time to live what we preach.

Ron Sider is the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Thomas Nelson, 2005) and The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker, 2005).

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