Sunday, 12 July 2009

The day I ceased to be a pacifist

There aren't many people who can explain how and when they ceased to be a pacifist. I am one such person.

Today's moving and painful article in The Independent on Sunday reminded me of the course of events that changed my philosophy and even to a small extent how I expressed my faith.

I had been elected to the European Parliament in 1994. One issue I could not miss was that of the terrible things that had happened in Bosnia. I have mentioned before a terrible moment when I met the full force of the evil at work in Bosnia:

"I remember a Muslim woman from Tuzla, a Muslim community in the former Yugoslavia, visiting me in my office in Brussels way back in 1995. She told me something of the breakdown of civil society. For some reason I had to leave my office to meet a visiting delegation. When I returned I suggested we (myself and my research assistant, a young woman) prayed for her and her family.

When we finished praying her face was awash with tears. "No Christian has ever prayed for me", she sobbed.

Afterwards my research assistant explained that while I was out of the room the woman mentioned that she had been seriously sexually assaulted by Serbian soldiers who she knew to be Christians because they were wearing crucifixes"

"No Christian has ever prayed for me"

A few weeks later the town of Sebrenica was surrounded by the Serbs. There was a tiny force of ill equipped and out numbered Dutch soldiers, supposedly part of a European peace mission.

The Dutch did not have the stomach for a fight. Neither did the rest of Europe. I well remember the impaasioned speech by a young Green MEP Alexander Langer. He pleaded with the Parliament to dio something, anything to help the people of Sebrenica. He pointed to the sheer evil that was about to unfold. Some of us, breaking party lines, supported his motion calling for military intervention. It was probably the first time in my life I had supported the use of violence.

For Alexander, who had become the voice of Sebrenica, the stress was too much. The weekend after his resolution was defeated, he hung himself. A good man who still had much to give.

A few days later we saw the men and women of Sebrenica being seperated. The men were taken to their deaths, the women because homeless widows.

That is why I am no longer a pacifist, much as I respected good men like Donald Soper, I realised that there were times when the military option was the only option available.

Please read the Independent article. This happened about 600 miles from where I am sitting now. The problem is that I and thousands of others did just that, we sat.


kim fabricius said...

Now that, David, is a moving and powerful testimony.

That you had been a pacifist for so many years before is, I think, surprising, as surely you were aware that the slaughterhouse of history is full of the kinds atrocities that you encountered in the Balkans. Nevertheless, we are all well aware that things that one hears of by report lack the existential impact of the personal experience. I can only pray that such an experience as you had would not destroy my own Christian pacifist convictions, even as I am sad that it finally destroyed yours.

Ultimately, Christian pacifism must issue from the life, teaching, and cross of Jesus, in fact from the whole narrative of redemption. It is a flimsy reed indeed if it can be shaken by its apparent "ineffectiveness" in the face of horrendous evils. If, however, you can no longer be a Christian pacifist, I trust, as all Christian pacifists must, that at least you will now adhere strictly and consistently to the "just war" tradition. Because such strictness and consistency are so rare, that would be a worthy and edifying witness indeed.

Ian G said...

The problem with pacifism is that it is an individual response. If it were a national response and as organised and prepared for as war then perhaps we might see results, but it will be costly.

There is also the question of justice; of intervening to save innocent lives; of putting life on the line in order to save life; which seems very Christian. Maybe it's not such a flimsy reed.

Consider the possibility that God calls us to stand on both sides of the divide, because both sides need a Christian witness.

Perhaps pacifism isn't the only moral high ground and may not always be the high ground at all. Perhaps a lecture on the 'just war' theory is a tad unnecessary.

kim fabricius said...

Ian, given that Christians themselves have always honoured Just War theory more in the breach than the observance, my "lecture" is absolutely necessary. In fact, it sounds like you should be taking notes. When governments tell Christians to kill people, other Christians included - and even when their own Church leaders tell them not to - they almost invariably obey. Don't you think that is shameful behaviour for a people that ostensibly worships the crucified Lamb?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Kim writes, "When governments tell Christians to kill people, other Christians included - and even when their own Church leaders tell them not to - they almost invariably obey." That is a critical observation that deserves a response from those who are not pacifists.

Ian G said...

What gets me is the judgement that David's change of mind was some kind of destruction and not a rational, Christian response. To call this a flimsy reed when he was the one who, along with others, had to make a decision and when none of us was there or had access to all the facts is arrogant.(What you say, not necessarily who you are.) And then to lecture him on the just war tradition..Like a parent lecturing a child,' If you can't be good, at least be careful!'

You are judging a brother in Christ, that is not a good place to be.

Mr. Bevere, it's quite simple. In the Protestant tradition, at least, we are grown-ups. We make our own decisions before God.

What the Church says may or may not be prophetic and we may or may not obey.

Methodist Preacher said...

Realising that I was specifically supporting a military response to a terrible situation was a moment of clarity and pain.

If you accept that certain circumstances require military force you have to then go through all the points that cause pain: is it right to kill in defence? Is it right to kill in attack? Should we have a standing army with all that implies in terms of young men being trained to kill? What right have I got to ask anyone to kill or be killed on behalf of the state to which I owe allegience? I could go on.

In the circumstances of Sebrenica I am fairly certain that an expeditionary force from the major European countries could have released those under siege with minimal bloodshed. But just saying that presupposes an exisitng army which could, in other circumstances, be used to less benign ends.

My self assignation as a pacifist came from meeting many fine people, Quakers, Socialists, Plymouth Brethren, Humanists and Methodists who had been concientious objectors in the two World Wars. Against the background of the war then being waged in Vietnam it seemed an honourable position when such people were castigated as "draft dodgers".

I think my principle is that there does need to be a military force under the control of a democratically elected government. However that government should not deploy that force until all other options have been exhausted.

Now I know that this isn't an easy position, but there was a moment, however brief, when I felt that a light touch military force could have prevented the worse massacre on European soil since the Second World War.

Some choices are not easy and we are each responsible before God for those that we make, especially when those choices may involve the deaths of those with whom you fight or those who fight for you.

kim fabricius said...

Ian, an example. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the mainline Free Churches all counselled against going to war in Iraq, on the basis, not of pacifist convictions, but of a careful consideration of Just War criteria. I believe that most of the mainline Churches in the USA, and their ecumenical instruments, did the same. Yet Christians went to war. Evidently they "made up their own minds". The question is: on what basis? Because they considered Blair and Bush "prophetic"? Or after their own due consideration of Just War criteria? I think not. In which case what you call "obedience" is, in fact, a lottery. It is what the Old Testament refers to in the period of the Judges as "each doing what was right in their own eyes" - a recipe for moral chaos and social disaster. And that is what you think the Protestant tradition stands for?

David, I was just about to hit the "Publish" button when I saw your most recent comment. Contra Ian, I was not dissing you in my first comment, and I will not diss you now.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You obviously missed my point; and my comment was in no way connected to David's change of mind. All of us have changed our minds on things over the years.

I was simply stating that Kim's comment is significant and deserves a careful response from those who disagree. The belief that in some circumstances that Christians can kill other Christians has huge theological and ecclesiological implications.

And as far as your comment on being grown up in the Protestant tradition, that was not a thoughtful answer to my question, but rather sounded more like "a parent lecturing a child."

Ian G said...

That Christians should seek to kill other Christians is clearly wrong. That Christians may, on occasions, kill other Christians, probably unwittingly and because of their individual decisions is regrettable. Consider the Christian German in WW2. We cannot judge their motives, but ultimately was Nazi Germany to be left without any Christian witness?

I said that we make up our own minds BEFORE GOD. That is not the same as doing what is right in our OWN eyes. So no, I do not think the protestant tradition is the same as the period of the Judges. But you knew that, you just twisted my words.

kim fabricius said...

So, Ian, the only Christian witness in Nazi Germany was that of Christians who killed? What about Christians like Father Maximillian Kolbe, who took the place of Franciszek Gazowniczek when this family man was sentenced to death at Auschwitz, offering his emaciated arm to the executioner as he approached with the syringe of carbolic acid? Or the layman Franz J├Ągerst├Ątter, a farmer, husband and father, who was beheaded for refusing to join the Reich army because of his allegiance to the nonviolent Christ? These men were martyrs. Is there a greater Christian witness than martyrdom?

And I was not "twisting your words". Actually, I was making a quite important point which we Protestants, with our notoriously thin ecclesiologies, need to hear. Your emphasis on our being "grown-ups" and "making our own decisions" suggests that you have an unacceptably cavalier attitude to the teachings of the church. I accept that you are not a pacifist. But according to the traditions of the church, the alternative to pacifism is not simply "making up our own minds", but "making up our own minds according to Just War criteria", which the doctors of the church have teased out and refined over 1,500 years. That we make up our own minds BEFORE GOD is a "Duh!" But if you make up your mind in disregard of the church, unless you can demonstrate that the church is wrong, you are indeed simply doing what is right in your own eyes - and, as a Christian, acting quite irresponsibly.

Ian G said...

I didn't say the 'only Christian witness', you did. Of course martyrdom is witness, that's what the word means. But the soldier on the frontline still needs a padre and many felt it right to defend their country when things went sour. I am not about to judge anyone.

Do I have to unpack the phrase 'before God'? Yes it includes the wisdom of the church, but longevity is not necesarily a proof of wisdom else we would have had no Reformation. Have I spoken against the Just War tradition? It seems to me that David was making a case for that specific istance being qualified under those criteria.

You accept that I'm not a pacifist. I'm not an absolute pacifist. I think that, on occasions, pacifism is the correct response. I am not about to judge those who differ with me whatever decsion they make.

The Scripture seems to permit a range of opinion, as does the church. The Just War tradition is something of an argument against blanket pacifism.

The real question will be, whatever option we choose, have we the courage to follow it through whatever the personal cost? There are those who are afraid to be pacifists just as there are those who are afraid to be warriors.