Christians, Libya and the cycle of violence

By Simon Barrow
March 21, 2011

"Is it ever right for Christians to support military action in places like Libya?" That was the question posed to me on Premier Christian Radio this morning, alongside the pragmatic issue of what is happening following the Western bombing raids and what the wider implications are.

My response (doubtless inadequate) was to ask what practical responsibilities Christians have in light of the awkward fact that the Gospel story clearly contradicts the notion of "salvation by bombing". Instead, the message of the crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the core of the Christian narrative, is about absorbing murder and violence, not inflicting it. Moreover the "revenge" meted out in response to unjust killing in the events concerning Jesus is divine life-giving, not more death-dealing.

So Christians are not, it seems to me, required to be armchair generals dishing out moral sanction for armed force. Nor can they sit idly by. Instead, they are called to act responsibly - by "telling it as it is" on the one hand, and by using every means at their disposal (not someone else's blood and guts) to support victims of injustice and to work for a just-peace, on the other.

On the truth telling side, that means acknowledging the pain and intractability in the situation - while pointing out that bombing Libya is unlikely to help the country move towards democracy and will certainly increase the suffering of its people. Some may be alleviated or spared in Bengazi. Others sacrificed in Misrati, say. But the wheel of violence rarely discriminates between the 'guilty' and the 'innocent', Western force in Arab and Muslim contexts only strengthens other responses of anger and revenge, and seeking to play Gaddafi at his own game - power through fear and death - is likely to be used to justify his own continued and expanded use of such tactics. In the longer run, a ground invasion and civil war also beckons. It's a horrible mess.

In this context, "using every means at our disposal" surely means, for Christians, exerting as much moral, political, economic and spiritual pressure as we can bring to bear - alongside others. It does not involve deploying standing armies and lethal force, for the simple reason that churches don't have those. Such means are not part of the "way, life and truth" fleshed out in, and as, Jesus. And calling for third parties to "bomb others to make them good" (as someone once pointedly put it over Iraq) is no more difficult, no more responsible and no more costly than armchair condemnation is.

What is clear is that a different way of engaging is required, if the patterns of domination, dictatorship and violence that dominate the long-term and overshadow the present are to be broken. This is what Christian Peacemaker Teams and others are seeking to do in situations of conflict in Israel-Palestine, Colombia and elsewhere: putting their bodies on the line to challenge violence and to bring people together in the face of injustice, using civil techniques and tactics which take huge effort and a good deal of discipline to develop.

In the case of Libya, such responses are rendered much more difficult by the absence of a coherent civil society or civil infrastructure, of course. Colonel Gaddafi, at various points criticised and at other points supported, sanctioned and armed by countries like Britain, has made sure of that.

Nevertheless, uniting Arab and international opinion (rather than dividing it through selective and perilous armed interventions) can exert huge pressure. Oil contracts speak loud. So does financial assistance and intelligence-sharing with anti-Gaddafi movements, working with the Arab League to prevent the flow of non-Libyan mercenaries to Gaddafi's forces in Libya, strengthening opposition inside and outside the country, ending arms sales to oppressive regimes in the region, humanitarian and refugee support - and more.

As the German foreign minister said this morning, the alternative to military adventurism is most definitely not inaction - as the people's uprisings elsewhere across the region have shown, and as governments could demonstrate too, if they were really serious about the freedom and democracy they too unconvincingly espouse from the barrel of a gun.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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