Wage Peace

By Scott Wright

The death of Osama bin Laden marks the end of a tragic decade of violence.

The dramatic raid on his compound in Pakistan and the battle that ensued brought to mind the horrific scenes of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the twin towers.

President Obama has said: “Justice has been done.” But at what cost? Ten years of war – with no end in sight; hundreds of thousands of lives lost – including 6,000 US soldiers; trillions of dollars wasted – and a military budget that has doubled from $350 billion to $700 billion; torture of prisoners – and no accountability for those who torture.

The global war on terror, which sought to end terror, has instead made war and terror a permanent fixture of our fragile planet. And while jubilant crowds gathered last night and cried USA! USA! our future is more uncertain as we prepare for the next wave of terror – or the next war.

Our grief is not a cry for war

In the days following 9/11, Pax Christi members joined people across the nation to express our grief and solidarity with the victims and their families, and our gratitude for those first responders who lost their lives trying to save the lives of others.

During those days of shock and disbelief, we remember the families who gathered near Ground Zero, in Union Square and Washington Square, with vigil lights and pictures of their loved ones, and messages scribbled on pieces of cardboard: “Have you seen my husband?” (wife? daughter? son?)

Huge sheets were draped across the fences, inviting people to express their grief in writing, and the majority of those who shared their thoughts and feelings scribbled words that said: “We want justice, not vengeance.”

It soon became clear that our nation was preparing to go to war. In the days and weeks between September 11 and October 7, when U.S. initiated the war against Afghanistan, some family members of those killed in the attacks joined together to say: “Our grief is not a cry for war.”

The “shock and unconditional condemnation” we expressed at “these unspeakable acts of violence and terror” was soon followed by our shock three weeks later at the war, as bombs rained over Afghanistan. At that time, Pax Christi restated its position that “violence, whatever the provocation, cannot end violence or establish peace with justice. The violence of war, once unleashed, is difficult to control.”

Sadly, these conclusions are borne out by the past ten years of the global war on terror. At this crucial time in our history, with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 just months away, Pax Christi USA asks, “What we have learned in these past ten years?”

A missed opportunity

First, we have missed an opportunity to forge a global consensus against the violence of terrorism and war.

As part of a global Catholic movement for peace and nonviolence, Pax Christi USA brings 40 years of experience in nonviolent peacemaking as an alternative to violence and war. We stand in a great tradition of Gospel nonviolence, Christian peacemaking, and Catholic social teaching that views war as “a defeat for humanity.”

Ten years ago, we wrote: “As people of faith and disciples of the nonviolent Jesus, we must be willing, even now in this darkest moment, to commit ourselves and urge our sisters and brothers, to resist the impulse to vengeance. We must resist the urge to demonize and dehumanize any ethnic group as ‘enemy.’ We must find the courage to break the spiral of violence that so many in our nation, we fear, will be quick to embrace.”

For a few short days and weeks, the sympathy and solidarity of the world community was with us, and we saw a great opportunity: “Our illusion of invulnerability has been shattered. We will never be the same. Hopefully we will never again be able to see ourselves as separate from the pain and suffering of the rest of the world.”

It was a time when a new consensus against violence could have been forged, and Pax Christi joined others in calling for those responsible for 9/11 to be held accountable for crimes against humanity under international law. Instead, our nation chose the path of war, and we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan that was initiated ten years ago as the response to violence.

What has become known as the global war on terror has itself created a “spiral of violence” to which there appears to be no end. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it… Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate… Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A defeat for humanity

A second lesson of these past ten years, one that should be clear from the past century, is that “war is truly a defeat for humanity.”

Many Pax Christi members have traveled to both Afghanistan and Iraq and witnessed first-hand the death and destruction caused by the war. We have “seen with our own eyes” and “heard with our own ears” the cries of the victims for an end to the violence.

The war in Afghanistan has taken its toll on civilian lives, and the more recent attacks by the unmanned drones have only added to that toll – including dozens of family members gathered for a wedding party, or seven young boys gathering fire wood. The war in Iraq, with its “shock and awe” has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and torn apart a nation already devastated by two decades of war and economic sanctions that caused up to one million deaths.

Six thousand US soldiers have lost their lives, tens of thousands more have been injured, and hundreds of thousands suffer from the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Military families have borne an unjust burden, while the majority of the US population has remained unscathed at best, and indifferent at worst, to their pain.

Pope John Paul II, who was recently beatified by the church, was unequivocal in his condemnation of war, and his words following the 1991 Persian Gulf War continue to cry out today, ten years after 9/11:

“No, never again, war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution to the very problems which provoked the war.”

We cannot continue to sanction war as a means of achieving justice or defending the innocent. All too often war does just the opposite: it sows the seeds of greater injustice and it takes the lives of the innocent.

The condemnation of violence and war should not be surprising, given the millions who were slaughtered by war during the past century. The preamble to the Charter to the United Nations, which was signed on June 26, 1945, begins on a note of sorrow: “We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…” And so it continues today to wreak havoc throughout the world.

John Paul II, whose native Poland was victim to aggression both by German fascism and Soviet communism, was even stronger is his condemnation of war when he said: “We must proceed resolutely toward outlawing war completely and come to cultivate peace as a supreme good.”

On January 1, 2000, the first day of the new century, John Paul II spoke eloquently of the challenge of peace in his World Day of Peace message:

“In the century we are leaving behind, humanity has been sorely tried by an endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ‘ethnic cleansings’ which have caused unspeakable suffering; millions and millions of victims, families and countries destroyed, an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger, disease, underdevelopment and the loss of immense resources. . . .  The twentieth century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people’s dignity and rights. . . .  War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”

A permanent war economy

A third lesson of these past ten years is that a permanent war economy is neither sustainable nor moral.

The United States continues to be the biggest arms exporter in the world, exceeding that of all other nations. Paul VI called this enormous expenditure on military armaments “a theft from the poor.”

And our budget is heavily skewed toward military solutions to conflict. The total budget of the United States allocates more the 90 percent to formulating military responses while less than 10 percent is spent on diplomacy, foreign aid, and international cooperation. Is it any wonder we are currently waging two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and supporting a third in Libya?

Fifty years ago, as he was leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed concerns about a rising “military-industrial complex,” which he described as “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” with the potential to acquire “unwarranted influence” in the halls of government.

Early in his presidency, however, Eisenhower alerted the nation to the dangers of relying on military strength alone to achieve peace. His words were prophetic as many peace and justice groups engage in a “New Priorities” campaign to divert much needed resources to create a just and sustainable economy and meet the needs of the poor and care for the environment. He said:

“This world in arms is not money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population… we pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Mary Ellen Quinn, a Pax Christi member from Maine, “a daughter, a wife, and social worker,” writes: “Endless war. Permanent war. We live in a war economy – built on militarism, weapons production, nuclear arsenals, occupying forces. We have a war consciousness – mindful of retaliation, of domination, supplying armed soldiers and bombs as so-called ‘peacekeepers,’ all the while pursuing our own selfish interests.”

Who suffers? One out of every ten Americans are out of work. Poor mothers and children can no longer depend on Medicaid and food stamps to get by. Many homeowners can no longer afford to live in their homes. Children who go to bed hungry. And these cuts in social welfare and in job creation disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

Even more, the lives of our children is being mortgaged on the back of two wars that have cost more than three trillion dollars, and an economy in shambles because of corporate and financial greed. Eisenhower had words to say about that too:

“We… must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

A descending spiral of violence

A fourth lesson of these past ten years is simply that we are one human family. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We will either be saved together as brothers and sisters, or perish together as fools.”

The role of our faith traditions is crucial if we are to survive together. In the days following the tragedy of 9/11, Pax Christi USA joined together with Protestants and Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs to pray for peace and commit ourselves to building the beloved community.

According to our mission, Pax Christi USA “strives to create a world that reflects the Peace of Christ by exploring, articulating, and witnessing to the call of Christian nonviolence. This work begins in personal life and extends to communities of reflection and action to transform structures of society. Pax Christi USA rejects war, preparations for war, and every form of violence and domination. It advocates primacy of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for creation.”

Unless the faith communities exercise prophetic leadership, and call upon the nations to train for war no more, we will continue down this spiral of violence. No one else has the mandate or the credibility to call for an end to war.

Just five days after 9/11, a memorial service was held at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. There church leaders and national leaders joined together to remember the victims and to pray for peace.

It is perhaps instructive to recall the words that were preached that day by the Rev. Nathan Baxter, the African American dean of the Washington National Cathedral. They provide a word of caution to us today, as the nation is jubilant over the death of a man who has come to embody the evil of terrorism. On that day, in words that could have been spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he said:

“We must understand – that justice is never “just about us”, no matter what the tragedy of our experience. When it is just about us it becomes vengeance and blind retribution, and more innocents suffer. The human aspect of this work is not necessarily always passive or non-violent. But true Justice is never about revenge, pure retribution or acting without the light of our spiritual values and accountability to the larger community. We must not become the evil we deplore in the search for justice.

“Justice is used in our everyday secular language in courts, police work, and civil rights pursuits. But Justice is a biblical word, a word of religious faith sometimes translated “righteousness”. It means the work of repairing God’s vision for a broken world. It is about making decisions and taking actions which are intended for healing, restoration, wholeness and peace for human community.”

So we commit ourselves to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who showed us “the power of redemptive suffering in overcoming death.” We must not succumb to the belief that violence – be it the violence of terrorism or the violence of war – is ultimately redemptive. Rather, let us continue to hear and put in to practice, the Gospel path of Shalom, where justice and peace, nonviolence and wholeness will be bestowed on the entire human family.

Scott Wright is a member of the Pax Christi USA National Council and the author of Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints.

One thought on “REFLECTION: Beyond retaliation – A Gospel call to nonviolence

  1. Thank you for your “Christian” response to our killing of bin Laden. When will we ever learn that killing is itself an evil —and an offense against our Creator God whose universal love is the healing power which Christians everywhere must “image” to the world.

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