Why the church needs a new foreign policy

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
21 Mar 2008

The United States and the United Kingdom are being required this month - March 2008 - to reflect on the recent heritage of their military interventions, most notably in Iraq (where the chaos and death seems to have no end) and in the north of Ireland (where the possibilities of an enduring civic life have moved significantly forward, as weapons are abandoned for the pain of politics.)

The logic of war as a solution is very powerful indeed. No matter how many tens of thousands are killed, someone will always pop up to say "the war worked". In limited protection, maybe. But in commission, prevention, or in the longer view of history with its many bloody twists, victims and deep, unfolding consequences?

What or whom are we trusting when we trust to the sword? This was a question which came to haunt the Hebrew Prophets, and it resonates from Jesus' own last recorded command to his followers - which was to put away their swords when they were tempted to raise them in his defence as he was arrested and taken away for trial on charges of sedition.

In The Church Times newspaper, Peter Selby, who was until recently the Anglican Bishop of Worcester and is now President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Bodies for Prisons and Immigration Removal Centres, explores "war as a solution" with hopeful realism.

He writes: In the case of Iraq, the entail of war goes on and on, as it does also in Afghanistan. Northern Ireland reminds us that the Troubles lasted 30 years, and that it took a full decade from the Belfast Agreement to the point where a shared administration for Northern Ireland could come into being.

War is a comet with a long tail. “Does Her Majesty’s Government have a policy for ending a war in Iraq?” was the most searching of the parliamentary questions asked on the eve of the invasion. It is a proper question to address to all who contemplate resort to violence, whether they are governments or those who wish to attack them; starting it is not the problem.

These two anniversaries should prompt some thought about timescale, above all else. It is the attraction of the resort to violence that it appears to promise a quick and final solution to an immediate issue.

The death of an enemy, whether your own or someone else’s, appears to be an ending — though it should not surprise Christian believers to find that it is no such thing.

The conflict and the peace process that provide this month’s anniversaries are themselves part of the entail of previous resorts to violence — the Iran-Iraq war, the division of Ireland — battles still remembered, still endowed with the capacity to bring hurts to the surface, and bring further resorts to violence in the future.

I recall Peter being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 some years ago, I think in relation to the Balkans. As a Christian bishop he was speaking out and questioning a particular bombing strategy. He was asked, "what's the alternative?" The alternative, he suggested, was not bombing! The interviewer was more than a little taken aback.

The serious and very substantial point Peter went on to make was that when bombs are dropped certain objectives may arguably be achieved, but much destruction takes place and a whole range of possibilities is cut off for a time, maybe for ever. When bombs are not dropped, what appears to be a quicker route to resolution is denied, but other possibilities remain on the table, other courses of action that would be destroyed by the bombs are there for us to pursue.

Even within the pragmatic logic of political calculation, the use of violence throws up as many problems as it offers avenues to 'success'. What of the Gospel in relation to all this? How does it measure effectiveness? Is its concern success, or something more rich and complex shaped by faithfulness?

The way of the Cross

Contrary to some popular Christian teaching, the way of the Cross is not marked by the justified infliction of violence, but its absorption and transformation in the person of Jesus, who is God's person for us. Likewise, the Gospel's anticipated vindication is not apocalyptic fury but the life-giving of God alone, which is called resurrection.

In reality, this is as difficult, if not more difficult, for Christians to believe in practice (in the way we live our lives) as it is for anyone to believe in theory (as a matter of intellectual debate).

The way of the sword, by contrast, looks like the kind of 'realism' we need when faced with terror, threat and injustice. But realism of what kind? The issue as to whether and how the God of eternal peace features in our picture of what finally constitutes reality becomes crucial at this point. Religious leaders often seem unable to contemplate that possibility as they make their calculations, showing by default that whatever is being believed in, it is not, it seems, the 'weak power' of the crucified and risen one.

Inviting others to accept a gospel which does not seriously change our options or put into question the destruction upon which we base our security is, it seems to me, more than a little problematic.

But the church I am part of (the Church of England) mostly does not seem to think so. It still views the refusal of violence in the name of Christ as an exotic option, not a core identity marker. In so doing it proclaims a Jesus whose claims are still considered needful of judgement at the bar of a political 'realism' which does not believe in resurrection.

It is not the business or constitution of elected governments in plural societies to believe in God's ability to raise the dead, of course. It is the business of Christians, gathered into Christ's body, to do that. We cannot and should not expect others (let alone the state) to "do it for us". Nor should we accept the idea that our capacity for action and decision is or can be circumscribed by those who do not follow the way of the Cross, but the way of the sword.

A new ecclesial foreign policy?

Of course, neither the way of the Cross nor the way of the sword are in any sense easy. Both involve considerable courage and sacrifice. Neither is morally straightforward. How then do we decide between them? The church has historically often argued that we do not have to.

But that is fundamentally to misunderstand the issue of trust and the nature of redemption at stake in the Gospel, or the church's calling to be "a holy nation".

Even in what we call the Old Testament, the endemic tradition of 'holy war' (which has some pretty horrific manifestations in Judges and Joshua) came gradually to be about the limiting of violence and moving away from "trust in chariots" as distinct from trust in "the Sovereign One of hosts".

Jesus took this profound internal critique to another level and another conclusion when he called on his followers to live a life of disarmed and disarming truth.

A church that finds its interests too tied up with the state finds it very difficult to live without sanctioning and blessing the sword. It sees its 'social responsibility' as needing to involve the offering of religious comfort to those who have decided that the the way of the military security is, in reality, the only one. Any other kind is 'spiritual' and belongs to 'another realm'. All very nice if you believe that sort of stuff, but nothing to do with real life, thank you very much.

But the whole point of the existence of the church as the Body of Christ (rather than simply another religious institution) is to show that this is not so. Life is of a piece and of a goodness beyond manipulation, or it is not finally life-giving, except in a fairly episodic and temporary sense.

The agenda of the church needs urgently to be changed. Instead of asking how it can keep the social order together, inject a bit of niceness, make sure that we pay lip service to being "a Christian nation" (one in which Christians can sit easy) it needs to be about raising questions concerning the tenability of our global reliance on wealth, might and ecological exploitation.

In this different vision, the church's 'foreign policy' is not about raiding parties into enemy territory to claim beleagured souls, or attempts to make its writ the law of the land (backed up by the state's sword). Rather it asks "how do we help create an alternative social ethic as followers of Jesus, those who trust in his cross and risen life?"

The hopeful agony of Christ's peace

In the church that recruits people to this radically different political option, new paths emerge. Peacemaking, forgiveness, hospitality without borders, loving enemies. These will never be easy because they are about witness, not control; vulnerability, not might; God's grace, not heroic human isolation.

But as the Mennonite theologian Ron Sider once asked: "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?"

The answer is not that people would not die, that injustice would not continue, that everyone would join the church, or that the world would suddenly become nice. It is that a new kind of possibility, that of deep redemption, would begin to reshape our understanding, our action and our priorities.

As it happens, Christian Peacemaker Teams - who aim to "get in the way" of cycles of violence in conflict zones, using peaceful tactics - emerged in part from Sider's observation. So change is possible, often in small ways. War is not a final solution, the peace embodied in Christ is. But it is by invitation, not force of arms; not against those of different faith or of 'good faith', but with and for them in the struggle to be truly human.

What God's peace does is to pose in stark terms the question of where salvation really lies - in "the Lamb who was slain", or in the tactics of those who slay lambs? Then it invites us on a journey of discipleship, as part of a Body of wounded healers. This involves the extremely difficult business of learning how not to kill. Yes, that's right, learning. For not killing, not wounding, does not come easily or naturally, and it involves pain and setbacks.

This is the Easter journey I believe the churches must take if they are to have any real saving purchase on the world of endemic violence (and, specifically, religious violence) we live in. It is authentic living in the way of Christ that has the power to change us, not a hectoring from pulpits of power or from positions of prestige. Overbearing Christianity, Christendom, inoculates us and those we address against the Gospel.

Likewise, the "difficult peace of Christ" is not a woolly, soft or romantic pacifism. Nor is it politically disengaged, quietest or negatively sectarian. It is, nonetheless, a very hard road indeed. But it is the way of the Cross, and if we have no intention of following it other than as a charming symbol or a matter of personal spiritual comfort, I really do wonder whether there is any point in being Christians at all.

There most assuredly is, of course. On the road to Easter - which is God's doing, not ours.

See also:

Willard Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology (Eerdmans, 2006) - http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/product_info.php?products_id=1756 [One would think that peace, a term that occurs as many as one hundred times in the New Testament, would enjoy a prominent place in theology and ethics textbooks. Yet it is surprisingly absent. Willard Swartley’s Covenant of Peace remedies this deficiency, restoring to New Testament theology and ethics the peace that many works have missed. In this comprehensive yet accessible book Swartley explicates virtually all of the New Testament, relating peace — and the associated emphases of love for enemies and reconciliation — to core theological themes such as soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology and the reign of God. No other work in English makes such a contribution.]

'Resurrection is no Easter conjuring trick' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6938

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs on http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com. His website is: http://www.simonbarrow.net . His fortcoming book is entitled Threatened with Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ.

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