by Glen Gersmehl
My two boyhood heroes served in the Vietnam War. The majority of my classmates in graduate school were military officers. Our family’s relatives and friends have served in all four military branches. I respect them and what they’ve taught me about war and violence. I believe our discussions in the US about peace and war would greatly improve if we displayed qualities associated with military service — particularly courage.
For example, it takes courage to move past stereotypes. Without exception, people I know with military backgrounds are less inclined to support war than political leaders without military experience. They love their country. They respect other points of view. They disapprove when some in the military are overly aggressive or into ultra-violent films and macho talk.
Similarly, few peace activists I know are stereotypically naïve about conflict and war. They, too, love their country. They believe in nonviolence, which means respecting and listening to those with whom they disagree. They care about civilians and soldiers who bear the brunt of war. They disapprove when peace activists are arrogant or insensitive.
We also need courage to question where our resources are going. Many military families and peace activists are critical of the priorities set by politicians of both parties. Last fall Congress allocated an additional $49.6 billion for military spending over the 2002 authorization, yet the budget shows very little new money going to improve veterans benefits or the conditions of our service personnel. And very little new money is going to programs relevant to fighting terrorism. Moreover, In 2003, the U.S. will again allocate nearly 100 times more money for the use of lethal force than for all nonviolent responses to conflict and terrorism combined (programs like the Peace Corps, UN Peacekeeping, State Department conflict resolution, or aid programs that help the world’s hungry and poor). In fact, year after year, the US ranks last among industrialized nations in the proportion of wealth spent to address hunger and extreme poverty, root causes of violence. Both military personnel and peace activists have the experience to know that spending so little on prevention doesn’t make sense.
We might pray for the courage to learn from the past. My friends and colleagues who served in Vietnam or studied that war strongly agree that it isn’t right to send US troops to fight a war that isn’t just or isn’t supported by the local people. They also agree that for all the good the US does in the world, we’ve also backed too many dictators and tyrants. We were too willing to send our young people (or pay for someone else’s) to intervene in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, Vietnam and Indonesia in the sixties, Cambodia and Angola in the seventies, Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the eighties, Iraq and Colombia in the nineties. Most of those interventions backfired. It is courageous, not unpatriotic, to look honestly and fairly at such cases and learn. In the words of Susan Ives, a career army officer (ret.): “You do not respect the military when you send them into danger while there are still options open for nonviolent solutions.”
Courage can help us grow in our understanding and use of alternatives to violence. We must give up the myth that non-violence is ineffective or weakness, and that only military force can counter real evil such as a dictator. Consider: In the last 60 years, two-thirds of the world’s people experienced change by nonviolent movements that were successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. Nonviolent movements prevailed against some of the most ruthless regimes: apartheid in South Africa, Ceausescu in Romania, Marcos in the Philippines and the Nazis in Denmark and Norway. Why has the most successful route to regime change in our time been absent from the public debate about terrorism or Iraq? We owe it to our service personnel and our brothers and sisters around the world to examine the power of this very Christian alternative: active nonviolence.
Let us pray for the courage to be faithful. We’ve often heard politicians who claim to be Christian emphasize only vengeance and violent responses to problems. I wish someone in the media would ask how they understand such clear statements from Jesus as: “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say, do not react violently against the one who does evil” (Matt. 5: 38-39a). Theologian Walter Wink offers an illuminating understanding of this passage as a call for Christians to follow “Jesus’ Third Way” — neither violence nor passivity, but disciplined resistance to evil as demonstrated by Jesus, and later Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu and many others. We are called to be peacemakers. The world sorely needs us.
This article was edited slightly for length for publication in The Lutheran, March 2003. This is the version on The Lutheran’s web site
Glen Gersmehl is national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship where he directs LPF’s “Leadership Training in Peacemaking” program, supported in part by Wheat Ridge Ministries. Glen’s peacemaking activity in the Lutheran Churches led to his selection as the US delegate to the 1999 meetings in India to plan the UN Decade for Peace. Glen earned a graduate degree in conflict and international security from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and has taught university courses and led workshops in conflict transformation and peacemaking since then. For additional resources on Christian peacemaking, alternatives to war and biblical perspectives, see www.LutheranPeace.org
Books: Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (Doubleday, 1998), and Engaging the Powers (Augsburg Fortress, 1992). John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1994), and When War is Unjust (Orbis, 1996). William Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s, 2000), companion volume to video series on successful nonviolent movements around the world.
For information on how to contribute or join Lutheran Peace Fellowship click here: LPF