Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Militarism, Nonviolence, Politics of Empire
The Responsibility to Protect doctrine gives international support to a new standard for intervention and protection for civilians when a state cannot or will not protect its people. The standard calls for an armed and trained UN peacekeeping force of thousands but emphasizes humanitarian intervention as well. The plan that grew out of millennium goals in 2001 would place soldiers under international command in nasty situations like Rwanda, Darfur, Burna, Zimbabwe, Palestine, civic and police violence often in cities, and perhaps in places aboriginal people are under attack. The doctrine has received ecumenical church support but is at least one step removed from direct involvement, personal risk or engagement by churches. Ecclesiastical support implies armed soldiers put in place to force greater justice, human rights and political order.
In a time when world wide initiatives in peacemaker teams and conflict resolution enjoy exceptional success this proposal stretches us because it returns again to the possibility of military intervention. Filipino, Waldon Bello, with a long view of globalization reminds us that the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect adopted by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1674 April 28, 2006 may be a sanitized version of modern imperialism. The doctrine challenges the often overlooked covenant in place for centuries to respect the sovereignty of states. However, in order for there to be a credible critique of armed intervention, non-violent conflict resolution and peacemaker teams work must grow many times over.
Some years ago I visited our Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Colombia. On the day before my arrival the team received an emergency call for help from a remote villagers where armed conflict had broken out between groups allied to the government and underground forces. The people urgently requested a presence of protection and I travelled to the village with Scott Kerr an experienced CPT member. By the time we reached the village more than half the people had fled and the fire fight was over. Those who remained were terrorized because they knew that both sides of the belligerent forces would return and charge individuals in the community with collaboration which may lead to execution or capture.
Two hours after we arrived one armed group entered to the village and began going house to house while their commander sat down to visit. My experienced partner talked to him softly and firmly, requesting that his soldiers not enter houses. He explained that visiting homes would make the occupants targets of his enemy. Within minutes the commander ordered soldiers not to enter houses and within an hour he called his thirty soldier unit together and they moved out. Later in the day representatives from a competing armed group arrived and were similarly encouraged to respect the local people. I believe our presence may have saved lives, property and affected the future of the community.
This story illustrates in the short term how an unarmed presence is effective where a presence of protection with arms may have been less effective. Additionally in the long term the unarmed presence creates space for people to make decisions about their own life, whereas an armed presences forces compliance and may awaken fear. Persons advocating armed international intervention point to success in Bosnia and contrast it to the failure to intervene in Rwanda where many died in a genocidal outrage.
Christians and people of many religious faith would most likely agree that they have responsibility to protect and assist vulnerable victims. The Responsibility to Protect initiative is built in part on the now largely abandoned, but nevertheless important, fifty years of armed Canadian peacekeeping experience where soldiers were used.
Christian support for the proposal builds on a millennium long reflection and negotiation with the New Testament themes of enemy loving that culminated in a compromised doctrine of just war variously applied since its inception in the 4th century. My experience is that an unarmed nonviolent presence of protection is sound scripturally and works better. My hunch is that unarmed peacemakers are also less at risk.
At the root of this discussion is our understanding that what is necessary is a basic shift in how violence is overcome. The habits of making things come out right by means of armed intervention reach back to the founding of organized warfare in the land of Iraq 5000 years ago. In fact the premier symbol of nationhood and empire is its military. Nations and empires turn to their soldiers because there is nothing else available that they think works. And, they are pushed to do something. Nations generally resist change and think short term. Breaking the habits of armed soldiering in the way we organize ourselves will require generations of effort and experiments.
An armed international peacekeeping force is not the answer. However, active rejection may not be the answer either. Enemy loving is a real way for humankind to do better. When our scripture cheers us on to enemy loving (Blessed are the Peacemakers…) it reflects a vision of how things might be different. But that difference requires organization, moral fortitude, training and willingness to assume risk.
The problem of violence is on the mind of villagers, urban dwellers and governments around the world. The thought that violence can be held in check and perhaps melted by nonviolent means is good news to a lot of people. It is bad news for those who are stuck in old ways. The growth and success of conflict resolution initiatives should not surprise us. But it does. In our darker moments all of us are tempted to submit to the superstitions that surround us about the effectiveness of armed intervention.
Christians around the world reflected more unity of opposition to the threat of war in Iraq than we have seen in many centuries of wars. The exceptions were some Christians in the US. Some of the opposition to the war resulted from serious engagement with the Bible. Some resulted from practical local experience with war and violence in the last century. Some motivation came from local political culture. Some opposition arose from a world wide renaissance of interest in the Gospel of Peace. This renewed interest is a sign of enormous opportunity to deepen our faith in the Good News of Peace and organize ourselves to turn back violence in places where people are not protected. This is not the time to negotiate away pacifism and the ongoing experiment to develop methods of nonviolent intervention.
But in our enthusiasm a thread of humility helps as well. None of us has invented the perfect path to overcoming violence with love. All of us who strive to create official or private initiatives of violence reduction at some point cooperate with armed groups and police, sometimes with some success – often with disappointing results. I have yet to meet an armed group that doesn’t at some point abuse its power, or become destructive in the pursuit of “just” goals.
“What if Hitler had not been stopped?” is the first question I will be asked when presenting these convictions. My response, “What if Christians had taken the generic New Testament teachings of peacemaking literally and refused to join Hitler’s armies?” “What if Christians had refused to participate in the plantation system before the American civil war?”
Is there a future if we don’t do better? Can our world overcome its superstitious embrace of arms without the gentle, persistent reminders of people who only use the strength of words, body language, honest negotiations and organized truth telling? If Christians can’t figure out a way to do better we must admit that an armed interventionist group is the answer and we may have to get behind it with money people, and organization.
What if Christians and others would break from the addiction to the force of arms to get things to come out right? What if this century would build on the successful experiments in nonviolent enemy loving arising out of the horrible conflicts of the last century?
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