Violence is so heinous that proponents of it must argue for its morality because its immorality is so plain.
I wrote that sentence in a paper I penned for Ron Sider, the writer of Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger (1976), when I took a class on peace and just war with him. And I really felt it last week after Trump ordered the military to strike the top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. All of a sudden, all over the news, were justifications for this assassination (and even people quibbling about whether it is “technically” an assassination) citing how evil he was. I glanced at an op-ed that declared that America took out the world’s number one bad guy.
But in a world where violence is so plainly wrong, its proponents have to widely acclaim their own compassion because it is obvious that what they are doing is morally questionable. So they rush to actually name the violence, and the escalation of military conflict, as indeed moral, compassionate, and in the name of peace. War is peace, as Orwell prophesied.
The U.S.’s perpetual war on terror just continues
Even the Democratic Primary candidates who decried the attack (mainly because it wasn’t them doing it, it appears), still told us how evil Soleimani was and how the world is better off without him. They mainly complained about Congress not approving the attack, and they spoke about the legality of the attack. Unfortunately for those Congresspeople the Authorization for Use of Military Force (or the AUMF) gives the armed forces and the president the liberty to all “necessary and appropriate” force against those responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks and any “associated forces.” So, really, citing this Bush-era law is a great way to kill whoever you want. Vice President Mike Pence, of course, linked Soleimani to 9/11, but that’s a lie. Just like Rumsfeld and Cheney lied about Iraq’s connection to 9/11 and to WMDs. The warhawks not only scramble to justify their violence, they lie in order to do it.
The politicians decrying the act speak of its legality, they speak of the danger of war, but they don’t ever make a philosophical argument against violence itself. They are talking about the best way to go to war; not the immorality of war on its own. So I admit, I am talking past them. But even as I do, I feel like even I have to say Soleimani wasn’t a good man, and rather quite an evil man, before I get accused of being an Iranian Revolutionary Guard apologist—so let me get that out of the way: I’m no friend of theocratic authoritarian regimes, and I think Iran’s activity in the Middle East has largely been imperialist in its own right. And though I do decry the violence of the United States, that is not implicit support of Iran, despite the narratives the warhawks wish to paint about their critics.
Violence is irrational, especially in this case.
Trump decided to kill Soleimani after being given many different options for the Iranian threat. From the New York Times: “Officials presented the president with options. The Pentagon tacked on the choice of targeting Suleimani mainly to make other options seem reasonable. They didn’t think he would take it. When Mr. Trump chose the option, military officials, flabbergasted, were alarmed.”
From a purely military angle, it appears that Trump’s escalation was completely inadvised—here’s a thread on that for your edification. Both the Bush and Obama Administration, far from dove administrations, decided not to kill Soleimani. Here’s Elissa Slotkin, the Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense and CIA Analyst on the matter.
We need an alternative to war, it starts with community
I admit foreign policy isn’t my area, and certainly not strategic military action. I don’t even think Christians are really supposed to be involved in that sort of thing, but I’m trying to speak the language that makes sense to folks. You see if you don’t talk in practical, political terms, Jesus’ call to nonviolence seems ridiculous to those whose understanding of the world is rooted in this political economy. So it seems, if the above sources are to be believed, that last week’s assassination was a bad strategic move at the very least. It doesn’t even meet the criteria of Augustine of Hippo’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Just War Theory:
These many reasons America should choose to avoid war with Iran correspond pretty closely to the justifications required by “just war” theory. There is good reason to be skeptical that any war can be morally justified, of course, but just war theory at least offers a good reason to pause on the mad rush to battle. There are variants of the theory, but generally wars can only be justified if there is a good cause, if wars are waged as a last resort, if there is a reasonable prospect of winning, and if the war is waged by a just, competent authority.
Right now, the American rationale for war fails on all of these counts.
Nevertheless, my concern isn’t in statecraft or justifying wars, but in prophetic witness. So my eyes lit up when I read Nathan Robinson’s piece on how to undo war propaganda, brought to you not by the state media, but by regular private media outlets (who I want to say, don’t act monolithically intentionally, but rather instinctively):
What I really mean here though is: Listen to the dissidents. They will not appear on television. They will be smeared and treated as lunatics. But you need them if you are going to be able to resist the absolute barrage of misinformation, or to hear yourself think over the pounding war drums. Times of War Fever can be wearying, because there is just so much aggression against dissent that your resistance wears down. This is why a community is so necessary. You may watch people who previously seemed reasonable develop a pathological bloodlust (mild-mannered moderate types like Thomas Friedman and Brian Williams going suck on our missiles). Find the people who see clearly and stick close to them.
Someday peace will prevail.
I love this message because it is so explicitly Christian. Stay in the church, stick with Christian community, that’s how you love peace. You protest the war so that the war machine doesn’t change you. So that you don’t start believing the lies about why Soleimani needed to be killed and why any ethical and moral personal conviction could never see it another way. War is sold to us by a machine that manufactures consent, not because it’s in on an evil conspiracy, but because that’s just how business is done. The role of the media is to inform, not to prophesy, and so the media can’t really stray too far from the political circumstance, or else it’s not “fair and balanced,” or “objective.” So long as extreme militarism is part of the public discourse, we will need to cling to radical peacemakers to avoid getting subsumed by the war propaganda machine.
Where are the Christians?
But of course, you might wonder, is this message explicitly Christian? It is, but if you look at Christians, it might be hard to get that message, right?
According to Jack Jenkins, Evangelicals were the group most likely to support a military strike on Iran! So it would appear like Christians, or at least Evangelicals, are the leading warhawks. And then Trump goes ahead and meets with Evangelicals, shortly after his reckless strike, to tell them that God is on our side! It is amazing display of nationalistic idolatry to me, but I am afraid that many people see these men and women worshiping the golden calf of violence in the church of Trump and think that’s what Christianity is about. Not surprisingly, because you have Christians saying that supporting Trump “is a test [of] whether you are even saved.”
There is an intentional effort being exerted to keep Evangelicals on the side of violence and hatred because Christians are so often sheep with no faith, afraid that they will be oppressed. So they too-often side with strongmen to protect them. That’s why they flock to Donald Trump Jr.’s assault weapon that has a crusader cross on it and Hillary in bars.
We need the prophets to rise!
We need Christian prophets to rise up. Circle of Hope is full of them. That’s why we were protesting the war with Iran this week. That’s why we were sharing images of “NO WAR WITH IRAN” this week. That’s why we are fervently, and unapologetically, opposed to violence and war. The gospel is at stake, truly.
And yes, I long for Christians all over the world to join this cause. And I am hopeful because God’s justice will prevail. But I am discouraged because so many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem astray. It’s an old story. It’s the one Jesus told on Matthew 23 when he laments over Jerusalem and how it sold its soul to its occupying force:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Christians must be peacemakers because that is the way of Jesus and the way of the cross. We mustn’t talk about who deserves death, because we all deserve death, but Jesus saves us despite that. Jesus died once and for all so that this cycle of violence can end. He endured state violence to end death. That’s the side we are on.
Nonviolence and peacemaking aren’t political strategies. It’s not intended to solve state problems. And if you are bent on solving state problems, you’re likely to get your hands dirty. I’m not. I’m committed to following the crucified Christ. We need more Christians to join us, and then peace will prevail. Pray for peace, be a peacemaker, be on the side of peace.