I already blogged some time ago about John Webster’s magnificently thoughtful lecture on “Theology and the Peace of the Church” from Aberdeen last month, but I’ve been wanting to follow it up with some thoughts applying what he said from the area of ecclesiology to that of politics. Of course, just as I remarked that his lecture was somewhat one-sided and his picture needs to be complexified with other angles, the same remarks could apply to these following reflections.
Too often, said Webster, we tend to assume that conflict is the norm, is the way in which we should expect the world to work; we assume that it is a positive good, and that the only way in which the cause of Christ can be advanced in the Church is through vigilance and uncompromising fortitude in conflict. We also find this attitude, of course, in the political sphere–there has always been and there certainly still is in our society a warmonger mentality on the part of many, a conviction that the world is a dangerous place, that conflict is the norm, and that the only way you can survive is by being tougher, smarter, quicker, and if necessary more ruthless than your opponent.
Foreign policy, for men of this mentality, is a matter of vigilance, deterrence, and preemptive strike. There are bad guys out there who are out to destroy you and they will destroy you unless you can identify them first and then go on the offensive against them to erase them from the earth before they become a pressing threat. We all know the tribe of Presbyterian heretic-police who live with this mindset in the Church, and alas, we all know the tribe of neo-cons (many Christians among them) who live this way in politics. The Muslims, we are told, plan to take over. They will take over if we let them–the only way to keep them from taking over is to meet their violence with violence, to enforce peace through conflict.
Of course, even assuming the first premise (are most Muslims really planning a violent takeover of the Western world?), why should we assume the second? Why should we assume that their violent aspirations will necessarily succeed unless met and preempted with violence? To do so is to assume an ontology of violence, to assume that conflict is primordial, that war beats peace every time. But, as Webster argued in his lecture, this is not the Christian account of reality. At the source of all things lies a God of peace, who creates a world based on peace, and redeems it with the promise of peace. Peace always comes before violence and always wins out after violence has interrupted. Conflict is a shadow that can never eclipse the true reality of peace. Ultimately, peace kicks violence’s butt.
But Webster’s lecture also had another target–the moralizing ecumenist. Too many Christians, he said, waste their breath on pious-sounding exhortations to peace, lecturing us all that we must learn to be tolerant, and insisting that if we just try hard enough, we can all get along. This puts the imperative before the indicative–it exhorts us to peace without ever establishing a proper basis for believing that peace is possible. Counsels of peace in the Church must start at the starting-point, the doctrine of God, and must teach us that, because of who God is, peace is already winning out over violence, that conflict is never ultimate or irresolvable, that Christ has brought reconciliation and we await only the full manifestation of that. Only then can we seek peace in confidence that God is already giving it to us.
Of course, the moralizing ecumenist, like the warmonger, has his analogue in the world of politics. We have all had our fill of the tiresome tribe of peace-demonstrators and UN peacekeepers, those who emptily proclaim that we can have peace if only we drop our lust for oil, or our pride, or get a new President, those who incessantly preach “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. If only we could understand the Arabs properly, and they could understand us, everyone would get along. Hardly. Where there is irreconcilable difference, greater understanding often just brings greater conflict. The warmonger tribe understandably mock the peacemongers.
The Christian quest for peace, unlike the naive hippie’s, recognizes that what we need is not more admonitions to peace, recognizes the love of violence that is deep within us, however much we may learn to dialogue and understand one another’s differences. The Christian quest for peace is founded on a greater confidence, a trust that God is a God of peace, and peace always wins out over violence, a confidence that because peace is prior to conflict, conflict will not have the last word, conflict will not prevail. But the Christian quest recognizes that this is only true because of Christ, and will only happen through faithful witness to Christ, not through appeals to a universal sense of humanity or human rights.
What does all this mean in practice? In Webster’s lecture, it did not mean an avoidance of all conflict in this sinful age. Rather, it meant three rules for conflict:
1) It must be a work of charity, for the Church and our neighbors.
2) It must be exercised in common pursuit of divine truth.
3) It must arise from and attend toward peace.
What might this mean for politics? It does not mean an avoidance of all violent conflict, I suggest. But it certainly changes our approach.
First, if conflict is to be a work of charity, not merely for our own people but for all our neighbors, including our enemies, then it is never just about advancing our own ends and protecting our own people, no matter what the cost to anyone else. In the War on Terror, many Americans seem content with the logic that if 2,700 Americans were killed on 9/11, then 270,000 or 2,700,000 Muslims is not too high a price to pay for justice and future protection. The casualties of the enemy, or the collateral damage to the civilian population, are easily ignored. For some of our politicians, it seems, any foreign policy decision can be justified by an appeal to national security. But if conflict is a work of charity, then national security can never be a trump card, can never justify a conflict that is not for the good of others, but merely of ourselves. Conflict seeks the protection of the innocent (of all parties) and the correction and reconciliation (and only in a last resort the destruction) of the guilty. If we learn to see conflict as a tool of charity, we will find that other tools, more often than not, will be more effective.
Second, what would the second criterion mean for political conflict? Well, in the realm of theological controversy, Webster’s point was to say that we must recognize that our theological opponents are in search of the same divine truth as we are, even if they are in error. We must acknowledge that we have in many respects a common aim and be willing therefore to accept the possibility that they have some things right and we have some things wrong. In global politics, we cannot of course assume that all of our opponents are ultimately seeking the same good we are; Hitler, for instance, certainly was not. However, we can still usefully apply this principle, by learning to recognize that our enemies are humans like we are, motivated by many of the same fears, hopes, and loves, and seeking many of the same goods. Very few of our enemies are so foreign in their aspirations that there is no common ground to find. A Christian approach to conflict in foreign policy seeks to look with sympathy into the mind of the enemy, and find there desires that we can understand, aims that we can share, and grievances that we can admit to be legitimate and seek to redress. This means, for instance, that we should not assume that Muslims are out to destroy us, pure and simple, and there’s nothing we can do but fight back. We should recognize them as humans like ourselves who want, more often than not, many of the same sorts of things we want.
Third, what does it mean for conflict to arise from and tend toward peace? It means that we do not assume conflict as the norm, do not assume that conflict is perpetual and irreconcilable. Rather, we must recognize conflict as an aberration, something that has little power compared to the power of peace, a phenomenon with a very brief life-span. We hope and we trust in a return to peace, a peace that will squeeze out conflict in the end. When conflict arises, we recognize that the conflict could have been avoided, and respond in confidence that peace can be restored. Christians in the last decade have been quick to buy into narratives of an eternal conflict of civilizations–Islam vs. Christianity, or worse, Islam vs. the West. Based on such narratives, we are led to believe that we must not blink or waver, that any friendly gesture is a sign of weakness that will come back to bite us soon, that any truce is a temporary and local halt in hostilities that must be resumed ere long. Such narratives attribute more power to conflict, to violence, than it actually possesses; we must remember that conflict is only “The afterlife of what the gospel has already excluded, the lingering shadow that the rising sun has yet to chase away.”
In short, a true faith in the God of peace will teach us not to see the world as a dark and dangerous place, through which we must always walk with gun cocked and loaded, distrustful of everyone we meet. It will teach us to go forth in confidence that the Prince of Peace has conquered and to see in all our relationships an opportunity to share Christ’s peace and make it more and more a reality in our chaotic world.