The False Choice of Just War

There’s been a lot of talk about war lately, both in response to the age-old conflict in Israel/Palestine, and in response to the militant group ISIS (Islamic State). There’s a strong sense that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is unjust, on one side or another or both, but there seems to be an equally strong sense that virtually any military action taken against ISIS is justified – the more the better. I’ve written about it a few times, and had some conversations about it, and I see a lot of the same arguments from multiple sources, so I thought I’d address some of them here. The biggest one is the idea that we have a choice between killing people and doing nothing, as if there are no other options in the world. Let’s start there.

I’m a pacifist. That doesn’t mean that I would choose doing nothing when violently confronted by people who wanted to kill me, or kill others; far from it. Non-violent resistance, to be truly effective, requires us to be willing to absorb violence into our own bodies. To put it another way, I would rather die saving someone else’s life than kill to save someone else’s life. So for those who would argue that pacifists are “passive-ists”, or that we’d choose to do nothing at all, I ask: what is more passive, standing in front of a gun or standing behind one?

In no way do I mean to denigrate soldiers. I recently had someone (who appeared to be in the military) say “you’re a civilian, war costs you very little.” I agree, it costs most of us far too little – which is why I find it terrifying that people who declare war never have to be the ones in battle. They can do it far too easily. I find it interesting that whenever I speak out against war, soldiers defend it. I speak out against war because I think that soldiers are put in harm’s way by politicians who often have ulterior motives and rarely have any risk to themselves or their own families. I think soldiers are asked to do terrible things without having a clear or truthful story about why they’re asked to do it. Soldiers are not cowards who stand behind guns – far from it. They put their own lives on the line just as much as non-violent approaches would require – less because they have more means of self-defense, but more because violent actions invite retaliation while non-violent direct action is aimed at defusing violent situations. Soldiers are asked to kill and die by politicians and, increasingly, opinionated people on the internet, for whom war costs very little.

A friend and colleague of mine wrote a blog post the other day about ISIS and just war. Dr. V and I probably agree about most things in life, but you’d never know it from our blogs. I’ll respond to the whole post here, but it begins with the false choice of just war:

Which would you choose: war or peace? Peace, surely.

But what about these options: war or a peace at home which permits a murderous tyranny in other countries, a tyranny bent on world conquest?

In such a scenario, if peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective and cost the lives of large and growing numbers of innocents, I would choose war—just war.

I would choose just war as a last resort, with reluctance, to protect innocents from evil aggressors. Lethal force would be limited to what’s needed, protecting non-combatants, aiming for a just peace.

I should be clear from the get-go that he never explicitly calls for war against ISIS. He’s questioning, which is something he does a lot, and for the most part, very well. But there are a lot of assumptions in this opening section, which he doesn’t unpack or address in the rest of his post, which is aimed at objections to just war (which I’ll address below). Let’s look at some of the assumptions here:

1. There’s a plausible situation in which there are only two options: war, or permitting murderous tyranny. This is the false choice of just war in a nutshell: we can kill our enemies, or we can do nothing. There are no other options. I find this strange. We’ve put people on the moon, we’ve invented music and art and mathematics, we’ve built multiple systems of athletic events that require massive international cooperation and sportsmanship every few years, and we can’t figure out how to disarm and defuse a violent situation without killing our enemies? This bogus binary is absurd, yet I see it constantly. Ask Gandhi if he was doing nothing when he kicked the most powerful empire in the world out of his country without violence. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr., if he was doing nothing, enjoying “peace at home” while he non-violently led the civil rights protests that were ultimately responsible for universal suffrage in the US, and also ultimately responsible for his own death by assassination. (I’d also like to point out that his own death didn’t stop him from saving the lives of many others.) Ask the Scandinavian countries who either remained neutral or even allied with the Nazis in WWII if they were doing nothing when they chose not to engage militarily, but instead to wage campaigns of sabotage and non-violent resistance; I’ve read reports that say that they were more effective at saving their Jewish population than any of the countries that resisted militarily. No, there are more than just two options.

2. “Peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective.” Dr. V did say “IF” in front of that statement, but while I’ve seen dozens of articles about ISIS, I’ve never seen one that even mentions diplomatic efforts. All too often, the assumption of just war is that diplomacy doesn’t work. Well, diplomacy isn’t the only non-violent option either (as my point above hopefully shows), but again, I’ve rarely seen an actual commitment to diplomacy. Diplomacy in our world usually corresponds to another quote about non-violence I’ve seen recently from Theodore Roszak: “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work,’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” The Israel/Palestine conflict is a perfect example of this: we’re always relieved when there’s a ceasefire that lasts more than a week. There’s simply no commitment to diplomatic resolution; it’s assumed that war is inevitable, or even simply justified, and therefore that diplomacy itself is a concession. They don’t come to peace talks willingly. How sad.

3. There’s such thing as just war. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a long list of conditions under which a war could be seen as a just war. There hasn’t been a single war in human history that meets those conditions. Just war is a figment of our imaginations, and it’s completely implausible in reality. Just war being theoretically possible but completely unlikely is not an argument for war. One condition of just war stands out: military necessity, which is described as follows:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Which brings us back to non-violent direct action. There are frequently (maybe not always, but probably most of the time) non-violent ways to defuse violent situations. They’re almost never tried, or limited to diplomacy which is usually assumed to be ineffective, is used reluctantly, and is given up on almost immediately. If a war would be just, it must use the minimum amount of force necessary – so if nonviolence is actually attempted it would be no force at all. “An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy” – but surely your enemies deciding not to attack you anymore would fit that description, wouldn’t it? (It would if your overall military objective was peace, which is required by the other criteria of just war.) Working for peace and refusing to engage in war is the only way to keep war truly just.

I appreciate the sense of reluctance that Dr. V has in the last sentence I’ve quoted above, and I know that it’s genuine – the guy’s got a heart of gold and wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone – but there’s also a sense in which, in spite of his reluctance to engage in violence, he believes that doing so would be justified, right, and good. This is at the core of my frustration with just war: it’s situational ethics of the worst kind. Things that would never be considered morally permissible in any other situation are suddenly not only justified, but good and praiseworthy. (I don’t know if Dr. V would call it praiseworthy, but just war in general implies it, and our society definitely lauds it). A little while ago I wrote that, in spite of being a pacifist, the news about ISIS makes me want to kill them all with extreme prejudice; but I recognize this as the worst in me coming out, whereas to just war theorists, it is theoretically a good thing and morally justified. Feeling bad about doing bad things is important, but it doesn’t excuse those bad things; and doing bad things for good reasons is important, but it doesn’t justify those who engage in bad things. There’s no such thing as a get-out-of-jail-free card in morality, and we can’t get away with doing awful things (like killing people) just because other people are doing what we assume to be worse things (like killing people). We’re still morally accountable for doing those bad things, and those bad things do not become good. If we want to engage in war we must recognize the cost of it on ourselves (as soldiers do): it may cost us our lives, but it also costs us our humanity, dignity, and morality. There may be times when we must be willing to take that on, but we can never assume that we maintain some sort of moral purity just because the other is more morally perverse (by our own standards and perspective) than we are.

I want to quickly comment on Dr. V’s response to “objections” to just war, because I think they’re fairly shallow:

1. “The Bible commands ‘do not kill.'”

Dr. V makes a distinction between killing and murder, and he’s right to do so in the context of the Pentateuch, but not in the context of the Bible as a whole. A follower of the same Jesus Christ who abstained from violence in spite of having legions of angels at his call (those same legions that Elisha did call upon in the Old Testament, by the by) and instead submitted himself to torture and death in order to save others, including his torturers, cannot simply refer to a distinction between killing and murder as an argument for war. The distinction is true, but unimportant in the light of Christ’s more powerful example of non-violence. Dr. V’s example of a police officer shooting to kill in order to stop a school shooting only underlines this: a police officer is a trained marksman, and presumably has the power to shoot to wound and incapacitate; there are also other steps police officers can take to stop a shooting in progress, and many police officers are trained at de-escalating situations. Shooting to kill may be justified as killing instead of murder, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s concerned with saving some over saving others. Christ was concerned with saving his own torturers and killers, and wouldn’t use his own far more legitimate power so that he could accomplish that. If the police officer wanted to save everyone, including the school shooter, they’d shoot to wound. And if they accidentally killed the shooter, it would still be different from shooting to kill.

2. “Jesus said ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Dr. V rightly points out that context is very important here, but I think he gets the context wrong, and thus the meaning it implies. He says:

Yes, Jesus said this, but this has to do with personal relationships, not matters of government. It has to do with a backhand slap to the face, which in Jesus’ culture is an insult. It means that if someone insults you, suck it up.

The context of Jesus’ comment was a class-based society in which the upper class, or occupying force, was Roman citizens. He’s correct in saying that it has to do with a backhand slap, but a backhand slap itself is a meaningful statement of subjugation, representing the entire occupation and oppression of the Jewish people by the Romans. A backhand slap on the right cheek is easy for a right-handed person, but if you turn your left cheek to the person, they can’t connect with a backhand slap. If they want to strike you, they have to do it as if you’re a real person instead of a subjugated non-person. Jesus is not just telling his audience to suck it up if you’re mistreated in a personal relationship; he’s telling them to encourage their foreign oppressors to inflict obviously unjust amounts of violence against them, and then to suck it up. This is using the Roman sense of justice to illuminate the injustice of their rule, and the other two examples Jesus gives in the same speech show this: when you’re being sued for your outer garment, give them your inner garment too (i.e., if someone is using the legal system to take the coat off your back, strip naked in the courtroom to show that they’ve taken everything from you, which highlights the injustice of using legal means to systematically devour your enemy’s property, as Romans did in Jesus’ day and as some Israelis do to Palestinians today); and when you’re asked to walk one mile, walk two (Roman soldiers could order any non-citizen to carry their pack for a maximum of one mile; more than that, and they’d be in trouble for it). Dr. V quotes CS Lewis, who points out that Jesus lived in a disarmed nation and “war is not what they would have been thinking about.” We agree on that point!

3. “Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbours? Doesn’t love preclude war?”

Dr. V answers this objection by saying that sometimes love requires us to protect our neighbours from murderous thugs. To this I would ask the same question that someone once asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus’ answer pointed to the historic enemy of the Jews, someone who was probably considered a “murderous thug” to many Jews of Jesus’ day – a Samaritan. In saying that we’re justified in killing “murderous thugs” to protect our neighbours, we’re implying that these murderous thugs are not our neighbours. It may be clear that they don’t see us as neighbours to be preserved, but that’s the point of Jesus’ parable: we are to love our enemies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during the second World War, in spite of being a committed pacifist. He felt compelled to do whatever he could for his neighbours, the Jews. He never actually committed any violence against the Nazis, but he struggled with the notion of it, and decided that doing so would damn him, but that he was compelled by his love of neighbour to do so anyway. He was willing to accept damnation for the sake of his oppressed neighbours, just as Paul wished he could do on behalf of the Jews. He’d do it anyway, and throw himself on the mercy of Christ, knowing he was wrong to do so but also knowing that he could do no less because of love of neighbour. He was hanged by the Nazis just weeks before the end of the war, and I imagine that he walked to the gallows with his head high and peace in his heart, because he’d done everything he could for his neighbour and had also been spared from having to take a life. May we all experience such grace and mercy.

Gaza and the Failure of the Church

In David P. Gushee’s In The Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013, there are two essays back to back about genocide. First published in 2002, “The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration” examines the roles of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe in the Nazi era to see how they could have failed so spectacularly to thoroughly denounce and subvert the Holocaust. He points out that even the Confessing Church, that thorn in Hitler’s side with leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke out primarily against the Nazi attempts to control the church, not against the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, and very few leaders (with Bonhoeffer being an exception) connected these two issues. At the same time, the debate between historians of the Catholic church during that period on whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough, or anything at all, to stop the Holocaust is still fierce, but it’s clear that the Vatican’s political role hampered his ability to denounce and work against the Nazis.

Right next to this is an essay, first published in 2004, called “Remembering Rwanda: Lessons from the Church’s Complicity in Genocide,” which points out that 90% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian at the time of the Rwandan genocide. I had no idea, and that number stuns me.

There are a number of reasons, in both cases, for the inaction of the church; and it occurred to me as I read these essays that those same reasons likely still stand today in the church’s response to the conflict in Israel. I want to be clear at the beginning: in spite of claims on both sides, neither side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is carrying out genocide. Genocide is, according to, the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” The word was invented to describe the Holocaust, and is very applicable to what happened in Rwanda. Hamas has killing Jews as part of its charter and states it in such a way that genocide is implied, but this charter was written in 1988 and has since been declared irrelevant and outdated by Hamas leadership – nor is Hamas in a position to actually carry out a genocide even if they still wanted to. Israel, on the other hand, has all of the means to carry out a genocide, and could have done so a hundred times over if they chose to; charges of genocide against Israel are naive at best, but are consistently used to undermine Israel and those who support Israel in the eyes of the international community.

So no matter which way you slice it, this is not a genocide. But that doesn’t mean that the church has done a good job of responding to it, and I think we’ve been failing for the same reasons that we failed in Germany and Rwanda. So let’s look at a few of them now, instead of in hindsight.

1. Political entanglements.

In Nazi Germany, the church was state-sanctioned. The Nazis were able to control the Protestant church through its association with the state: pastors were paid by the state, and the mainline Protestant church was quickly co-opted into a state church that assimilated Christianity into Nazism. The Protestants who resisted the Nazis were so busy fighting for their independence from the state that they lacked the social capital to actually speak out against the treatment of the Jews, and those who finally did (with notable exceptions) waited way too long: it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak out about the mistreatment of an entire people group only at the point of them being corralled for killing. And even then, most were silent, or worse, more directly complicit. On the Catholic side, the Pope tried to maintain neutrality during the war, not only to act as an intermediary for diplomatic solutions but also to keep the Vatican from being a military target; because the Pope was both a religious leader and a political leader (Vatican City is a mini-nation), he had a conflict of interest, and his role as a political leader won out over his religious mandate to care for the oppressed.

I don’t know much about the status of the church in Rwanda, but Gushee mentions that it had a very cozy relationship with government, to the point where its interests were intertwined with the government’s interests and it was unable to speak out against government actions.

The nation of Israel was founded by Western governments (Britain) and is still supported by Western governments (USA, Canada, etc.), but there has always been an element of Christian Zionism in the founding and support of Israel. Some people claim that it was and is the primary element of support for Israel; this isn’t true, but the role of Christian Zionism isn’t unimportant, and I mention it here because it is the way that the church is tied up with politics. The word Zionism is used to describe the position of supporting a Jewish state in Israel, but religious Zionism – including Christian Zionism – is the belief that the existence of a Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecies and is one of the signs of, or will even bring about, the imminent coming/return of the Messiah. Jewish Zionists in Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, believing that they are accomplishing God’s promise of giving them the land as in the book of Joshua; Christian Zionists support Israel, believing that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is one of the signs of the second coming of Christ; and the government of Israel, which is always a coalition, hangs on the swing-vote of the Zionists and therefore generally can’t risk stopping the settlements, which are the most contentious issue in peace talks. Obama has taken a fairly hard line against settlements in the US’s latest attempts at getting peace talks started again, but faces tremendous pressure from Zionist Christians and Jews in the US because of it. So even though Zionist Christians are relatively few in number, their religiously-motivated support for Israel undercuts the entire peace process, as well as the voice of the church against the atrocities being committed on both sides of this conflict.

2. Political theology.

There is a passage in Romans that says that Christians should obey the government. This passage, and the rest of Scripture, puts some pretty major limits on such obedience, but historically it hasn’t been interpreted that way. The German church during WWII soundly believed that the state was God-ordained, and that obedience to the state was a Christian duty and virtue, to the point where they would proudly enlist to fight a war that they couldn’t help but believe in. One of Bonhoeffer’s biggest challenges was that many of his seminary students willingly enlisted, or didn’t utilize their exemption from the draft as pastors.

This misinterpretation of Romans has led to an inherent church complicity in the actions of the state. I can only imagine that some version of this was true in Rwanda, and it’s certainly true in Israel. This misinterpretation is also at the heart of just war theory at its worst, legitimizing anything the government does in war and stopping the church from speaking out against it. Many Christians, even those who aren’t Zionists, have difficulty thinking of a government as unjust, even if it’s committing atrocities.

There’s also a general lack of awareness of the nature of the Powers and Principalities of this world, or what becomes of governments treated as idols. A revival in this theology came about after WWII, as a way of attempting to explain the Holocaust on a spiritual/theological/social/psychological level. Walter Wink has recently been the biggest voice in this area of theology, and points out that we’re all complicit in systems of violence, and that we’re all also victims of such systems of violence. The Domination System takes on a life of its own, and its power is greater than that of any political or religious leader. It takes collective action and resistance to overturn such a system, but the church has neglected its purpose as the nexus of such resistance, leaving those who are being killed by this system to form their own resistance – which of course only feeds the conflict further.

3. Racism

The church was actively antisemitic for way, way too long. Gushee points out that there was nothing the Nazis said about the Jews that the church hadn’t already been saying for years. It’s absolutely shameful, and it fed the antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and that same antisemitism and lies about the Jewish people are still used in many Arab countries today.

The church in Rwanda was part of the colonial system that set up arbitrary and racist social systems in Rwanda.

The church today is party to antisemitism, even among the Zionists. Christian Zionism is, effectively, Christians supporting the Jews as a means to an end. Christian Zionism tends to come from the same churches that believe in dispensationalism, which is a doctrine that holds that the age of the Jews is over and that they have been replaced by the Church. Many Zionists love Jews as a way to convert them, or as a way to bring Jesus back, but not for their own sake. This is not true of all Christian Zionists, but there’s an uncritical assumption among many Christian Zionists about the reasons they support Israel, and it’s subtly antisemitic. To put it another way, it objectifies Jewish people. And of course there are still those out there, Christians included, who are still just openly antisemitic. The church in general is not speaking out about antisemitism.

But more obviously, the church today is party to Islamophobia. Groups like ISIS only reinforce this, but we’re responsible for the way that we reduce all Muslims to a single, homogenous group in the way we think and talk about them. There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and we imply that most of them are terrorists in the way that we talk about them. Many Christians in the West have no idea that there are Arab Christians in Palestine; we assume that Arabs are all Muslim, and Muslims are all bent on genocide of non-Muslims. The church has done little or nothing to combat this racist, Islamophobic attitude.


So there’s my quick analysis of how the church, in general, is failing. I’m happy to commend Pope Francis for his subtle yet obvious criticisms of both sides of the conflict on his recent trip to the Holy Land, but the rest of us need to get on top of this. I’ll end with a quote from Gushee:

To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to “rescue those being led away to death” — these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002? – Gushee, In the Fray, 51.

Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

I’m currently reading In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013 by David P. Gushee, a series of essays and addresses in a variety of ethical topics and issues. Today I read “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views”, written in 2002 just before the US invaded Iraq again, and it got me thinking about the possibility of a third Iraq invasion on the horizon.

Gushee points out that Just War theory has been divided into what he refers to as “soft”, or “dovish” views of just war, and “hard” or “hawkish” views. He then gives an example of each view. I’ll give you his definitions of the two views, followed by more contemporary examples from Gaza and Iraq today. First, “soft” just war:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 32.

Soft just war theory starts with the notion that war is hell. Gushee later points out that soft just war theory developed in the 20th century, in large part in response to the horrors of the wars of that century. The fact that he separates between articulating the horror of war and having a presumption against war may seem strange: if war is awful, why wouldn’t we presume against it? Starting with the presumption that war is horrific, even evil, soft just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the limitation of war: if war cannot be carried out justly, it should not be carried out at all. Gushee goes on to describe hard just war theory:

Hard just war theory reverses these emphases, replacing them with the following: a presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; a presumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world, and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the US government and its claims for the need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 33.

Hard just war theory sees war as a necessary evil, a regular function of government as a way of keeping the evils of injustice and disorder in check. This is where references to Hitler usually come into play: what’s more evil, to kill thousands of people in a war, or to not go to war and let millions of people die at the hands of a radical dictator or terrorist group? Governments have the responsibility to protect their people, and some would argue that they even have the responsibility to punish those who would attack their people (Gushee points out that this was argued as a reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11). Starting with such presumptions, hard just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the justification of war: war must be waged, and should be waged as justly as possible.

Before continuing to the examples, make sure you take a look at the criteria of just war. There has never, in the history of the world, been a war that meets all of these criteria; yet even the most pacifist of us, with the benefit of hindsight and recognizing the life we enjoy today, may be willing to admit that there are some wars that we’re glad were fought. I think I would insert into Gushee’s analysis, then, a difference in the way that the word “just” is understood: soft just war theorists would argue that no war is just, even if war is necessary; while hard just war theorists would maintain that the ends justify the means, i.e., that a war is actually just in the sense of being morally acceptable if it is waged for the right reasons and in the most humane and effective ways possible.

Now take a look at the current conflict in Gaza. Israel and her allies tend to lean pretty heavily on hard just war theory, which Gushee points out is natural for any government to do: he notes that we tend to hold the position on just war that best aligns with our loyalties. Those loyal to a state or military body are naturally going to have their reasoning affected by that loyalty. In Israel, every male and a large portion of the female population is a member of the military; further, their ethnic identity is tied with their national identity, as Israel is a Jewish state. Even further, they have reason to understand their survival and continued existence as a part of that Jewish identity, as from the moment Israel became a nation they have been subject to attack from neighbouring nations whose explicit aim was to completely destroy them for racial and religious reasons – so loyalty to the state and the military can be seen as inherent to cultural and religious identity for Jewish Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, hard just war theory (of a different sort) also rules: Palestinian governments and militant groups such as the PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas have all at different times and to different degrees justified their militant stances. The difference is that they pay no lip service to just war criteria, and work within revolutionary frameworks that include guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, kidnappings and torture, and targeting civilians. Make no mistake, Western governments do this too (Israel is surely no exception); we just claim that we don’t. In any case, the Palestinian governments’ concept of just war is much broader, with no restrictions on methodology but instead deriving its justification entirely from right reasons for war: being oppressed on one hand, and (at least to extreme conservative islamists) the existence of a Jewish state in a Muslim holy land on the other.

International parties in this conflict aren’t quite so firmly on the side of hard just war theory. The US government affirms Israel’s right to defend itself, but is more insistent that other means of conflict resolution be at least attempted (Canada hasn’t said much in that regard, to my shame). Other nations condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza, but support the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves. Of course, both nations are defending themselves by offensive means, attacking their neighbour as a way of defending against them, and this is deemed justifiable only by the most “hawkish” of just war theorists.

International groups and individuals are more prone to supporting Palestine than most national governments are. Hamas began as a (terrorist) militia, and other militant forces around the world support their struggle openly and verbally, while governments who support them do so secretly and with smuggled shipments of weapons. Individuals who have no connection to the conflict except through news reports online are more commonly soft just war theorists: Paul Estrin, the now former president of the Green Party of Canada, wrote a blog post in which he lamented the entire war, and even recognized several of Israel’s faults in the conflict, but implied that if Hamas didn’t change their aim of eradicating Israel that Israel would be justified in taking more severe measures. His whole post seemed a long way short of pacifism on one hand, and yet there was nothing “hawkish” in his view that Israel would be right to defend itself. Even so, there were immediate calls for his removal based on his so-called support for “genocide” (the implication being that Israel is engaged in genocide, and therefore any support of Israel was support of genocide). So even people who have no connection to the conflict other than being a human being on planet earth are regularly expressing some form or other of just war theory in support of either side of this conflict.

The Israel/Palestine conflict, to me, gives support to soft just war theory. I’m a pacifist, but when I see that there are elements on both sides of this conflict who won’t stop until the other side is annihilated, I can’t help but think that perhaps defensive violence may be necessary. If that defensive violence could be used in a just way as defined by the criteria of just war, I might be won over to soft just war theory from my current pacifist stance. I recognize that my pacifism is easy, given that I’m not currently under threat. Even so, the convoluted nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict suggests to me that a pacifist response is possible: both sides can recognize that they’re guilty of atrocities toward each other; both sides can recognize that they’re not gaining any ground by fighting; and both sides could at least in theory agree to simply stop fighting. I think this would require that both governments agree to more tightly control their citizens, as the extremists on both sides are the ones who keep the fighting going, but I think that would in many ways be more just than trying to exercise strict control on each other. So I still have some hope for a pacifist option, but in general Gaza makes me think that perhaps soft just war theory is justifiable.

Then ISIS happened. Everywhere I look online these days I see news stories about ISIS (an extremist militant islamist organization) murdering Christians in Iraq, even beheading children. My first thought whenever I see a story like this is about the Christians, my people: “Lord, please help those poor innocent people.” My second thought is about ISIS: “Someone needs to kill those motherfuckers.” Not particularly Christian or pacifist of me, is it? Of course, my sudden swing toward thinking that violence is justified is, as Gushee pointed out, a product of my loyalty to the group in question. It’s also due to the nature of ISIS: they’re a completely unaccountable group that seems to function on mob mentality and religious fervor, and shows absolutely no restraint. This is as near to radical evil as I’ve ever seen in this world, the kind of evil that doesn’t follow the rules of war, the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with. This is mass-possession, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since…Hitler. And I’ve come full circle, back to the argument that war is justifiable if it’s fought for the right reasons, and that it’s better to kill a few thousand members of ISIS than to let them slaughter Christians for no cause.

Knowing that I have this kind of reaction is helpful, I think. It helps me to identify with those who justify war without immediately resorting to inflammatory and dismissive terms like “warmongers”. It helps me to step down off of my high horse as I offer opinions on the internet regarding the wars of the world from my comfortable couch in Canada. And it helps me to consider the true cost of pacifism, as well as the true potential of non-violent resistance, because all too often we treat pacifism as an ideal that gets thrown out the window as soon as the first shot is fired by our enemies. If we’re going to hold a soft just war position, we need to do so not as a failed attempt at pacifism, but rather as a principled and self-controlled approach to self-defense or the defense of others. And if we’re going to hold a hard just war position, it should be because it makes sense, not because we’re loyal to our state or military body. And finally, knowing that I have a knee-jerk reaction toward a hard just war position reminds me why, more often than not, my standard position is pacifism: because as much as I’m loyal to Christians and may want to defend them, my first loyalty is to Christ himself, who absorbed the violence of Rome into his own body rather than letting himself be rescued by his followers (or a legion of angels), and did so in a way that inspired a more principled and higher resistance in people and shamed the violent powers that ruled by the sword. This is not the kind of action that I can insist that others follow – if I were in their situation, I may feel justified in violence – but it is the action that Christ took, and the action he calls his followers to emulate. I hope I never need to follow him that, and at the same time I watch and wait for an opportunity for my own death or persecution to mean something. If given the choice between justifying killing someone and having a meaningful death, I hope for the latter. Perhaps if more of us looked for ways for our life, and death, to be meaningful rather than looking for ways to justify killing others, we’d have less opportunity for either.

Gaza, the Green Party, and Non-Violence

Another digression from theology – this one’s for the Greens.

The current round of violence in Palestine and Israel is, as always, completely out of hand. I recently wrote about the fact that I have no real answers about that whole situation, and about how it’s not at all helped by self-righteous justice advocates who don’t really know what’s up – which is why, as a self-righteous justice advocate (or slacktivist) I tend to not say much about it. I’m just not in much of a position to say anything.

In politics, saying nothing is a privilege. Parties are expected to have a stance on an issue, and as the now-former president of the Green Party of Canada found out, it’s not possible to be involved with a party in any official capacity and maintain the right to a personal opinion. Paul Estrin wrote a blog post that contained a view of the situation that many claimed was pro-Israel (it was certainly anti-Hamas), and some took it to mean that Estrin himself supported the genocide of the Palestinian people. As absurd as those claims were, they were enough that Estrin had to step down.

One of the claims against Estrin was that he was going against the party’s stance on the issue. He wasn’t – at least, not explicitly, and not much in his blog post was clear. It was far from a position paper, more of a sad monologue of frustration about the conflict. The party’s actual stance on the issue is excellent though, and it shows several of the main reasons I’m Green:

G14-P58 Israel – Gaza Conflict
Be it resolved that the GPC urges the immediate cessation of hostilities between Israel and Palestine. The GPC will adopt a posture of engaged neutrality, opening all available diplomatic avenues in both Palestine and Israel to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict consistent with the GPC’s commitment to justice and custom of speaking truth to power.

Elizabeth May’s speech also hits home for me:

“I want to at least touch on what’s happening right now in Israel and Gaza, and the Palestinian people and the Israeli people and say, from the bottom of my heart, that Israeli children and Palestinian children have an equal right to be free of bombardment.”

“And I condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization for sending missiles into Israel, but the Israeli retaliation and the invasion of Gaza violates international law and humanitarian norms, and any Prime Minister of Canada worth his or her salt would say that as a friend and ally of Israel, “you’ve gone too far – you must move to peace talks.”

Many people take the stance of neutrality to be a cop-out. In a conflict in which both parties have innocent blood on their hands, what other stance could be taken? Many people say that pacifism is unrealistic and ineffective, that it doesn’t hold up when you have irrational and militant neighbours trying to conquer you. But when your neighbours remain human beings, and you value human life, will killing them actually solve the problem? These neighbours have been at war with each other for nearly a century now – perhaps we should say that war is unrealistic and ineffective. Jesus had people criticizing him for his neutrality and commitment to non-violence during a Roman occupation of that same territory; his legacy is far greater than the zealots who launched an insurgency against the Romans shortly after his death, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews.

I’m proud of the fact that non-violence is one of the foundational views of the Global Greens movement. I’m proud of the fact that the Green Party makes policy based on evidence rather than partisanship, that we look at the facts rather than choosing sides. In an international conflict like this one choosing sides, even implicitly, only further ensnares us in the conflict itself; it blinds us to the presence of good on the side of our “enemy” and the presence of evil on “our” side. Elizabeth May’s comments get to the heart of the issue: children in both nations are being bombarded, human rights are being infringed upon, and all such hostilities are illegal under international law. Those are the facts, and choosing sides has nothing to do with it. The Party’s official policy is likewise straightforward: we urge both parties to cease hostilities, and we offer ourselves as diplomatic partners to both sides to work toward peaceful resolutions.

This isn’t saying nothing. This is a positive and powerful statement, cutting to the core of the issue without getting caught up in all of the justifications for violence. Yet it’s neutral and non-violent. We need more political statements like this, that speak up on issues where wise people choose not to say anything, yet that do so with great wisdom.

I write this as a member of the Green Party, to others (including other Green Party members) who may be confused about the stance of the party on this issue. As a party, we’re not going to choose a side. We’re not pro-Israel, or pro-Palestine; we’re also not going to sugarcoat what either side is up to. Speaking truth to power doesn’t mean witch-hunts for people who disagree with us on the internet, and it doesn’t mean using words like “genocide” and “aparthied” freely and without justification as if they were self-evidently well-applied to this complex situation. Feel free to dissent from the party policy in your personal views – we also don’t whip votes, let alone opinions – but recognize that when you’re calling down your president for his views being contrary to party policy, you’re actually going against party policy yourselves. Principled, non-violent neutrality doesn’t need to raise hell, or even raise its voice; it provides space for both sides to speak, and doesn’t hinder anyone from doing so, facilitating discussion for the sake of greater understanding leading to peaceful resolution. If we can’t model it, we should stop holding it up as our official position.

Gaza, Slacktivists, and Internet Shaming

This isn’t about theology, but it’s certainly about ethics, along with some sociology and current events. FYI, there are some cusswords below.

The conflict in Gaza is probably the most complicated international event in history. I’ve been reading about it for years, and I honestly have very little sense that I actually know what’s going on. People who’ve been studying it for decades often claim that they know what’s going on, except that opinions and analyses of the situation are so divided and contradictory that it’s hard to find two people who agree entirely with a theory about what’s going on. People within the nations of Israel and Palestine are divided amongst themselves about what’s going on, and especially about what could stop it.

Nobody really knows what’s going on – not even the people who live there. None of us can see the whole picture, and I think that’s part of why it’s so difficult to follow: this is actually many different conflicts rolled into one, but everyone seems to think it’s about one nation against another. It’s not that simple, and I sincerely wish that people would stop producing videos and blog posts and infographics that try to simplify it. Maybe if you read all of them you could avoid being misled. Maybe.

So nobody knows what’s going on, but as the great sage once said, opinions are like assholes, and there are plenty of assholes on the internet. Or something like that. So it seems that everyone on the internet not only has an opinion about the issue, but they hold opinions about it that are so strong that they feel the need to religiously defend it, shaming and demonizing anyone who would dare disagree or present the issue from a different perspective. This kind of behaviour is pretty standard in politics, but I think that the internet is magnifying it, and I think I know why.

There is a thing called the “Online disinhibition effect,” perhaps better known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. It was noticed back in the 70’s on CB radio, and it’s only gotten worse in the digital age, but it’s summed up well by Penny Arcade’s “GIFT”: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. It was later adjusted for clarity: Normal Person – Consequences + Audience = …well, you get it. The anonymity of the internet makes us feel like we can say and do whatever we want, and the normal social inhibitions we feel go out the window. We’re willing to say things online that we would never dream of saying in public or to someone’s face.

So this leads to another equation, wherein the political ostracism and censorship of others who don’t hold our views gets magnified via the internet:

Normal Person – Consequences + Self-righteous Political Fury + Audience = …well, Total F-wad just doesn’t seem to cover it. To quote Fancisco de Goya, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” On issues like Gaza, we become self-righteous monsters. I think that’s probably the worst kind of monster. We’re getting into megalomania territory, on a scale as big as the internet.

Yesterday provided me with a good example of this. A leader in a group I’m a part of wrote a blog post about Gaza, and before I’d even had a chance to see the post, there was a petition showing up on the wall of my Facebook group asking for his immediate resignation. So, I tracked down the blog post in question – which wasn’t very easy, as I had to log into a closed-group website and search for it – and read it expecting…well, the comments I had seen about the post before I read it said that this guy was blaming Gazan civilians for the conflict, and legitimizing genocide. I was underwhelmed by the post itself. First of all, it’s a blog post. It’s fairly poorly written, as if he were just getting something off of his chest – definitely not an official news release on our group’s letterhead! Second, the dominant theme of the entire post was his sadness over the entire situation. The post didn’t blame anyone except Hamas (though it expressed sadness that Hamas had managed to be democratically elected as a government), and it certainly didn’t legitimize genocide (though it expressed sadness that Israel would have to retaliate on a greater scale if Hamas continues its current tactics and attacks). The level of subtext that people needed to read into this post in order to make it offensive is astounding, yet the first three comments on the post each said things like “I’m shocked and disappointed…” and “I’m leaving this group and withdrawing all support.” I’d link you to the post and the comments, but I’m far too embarrassed on behalf of the entire group.

So I went back to my Facebook group’s wall and commented on this petition post, explaining why I wasn’t going to sign the petition: that I believe that everyone has the right to an opinion, that this person wasn’t speaking for the group (as several disclaimers made clear) and that we as a group can’t hope to accomplish much if we’re quick to disown and censure (and censor) our members. This morning, the post I had commented on had been removed (taking my comment with it) and then re-posted (without my comment). Others have also had their comments deleted, from the look of things.

The level of hypocrisy is astounding, but understandable given the social psychology at work. The issue itself – the conflict in Gaza – is powerful and intense, inviting powerful and intense opinions and reactions. Those reactions, like the parties in the conflict itself, disagree about the nature of the conflict, and get lumped in with the parties of the conflict itself – i.e., people have “chosen a side” simply by holding an opinion. This creates an in-crowd bias, or an “us and them” mentality. This psychological phenomenon allows us to completely dissociate with people who aren’t in our group or on our “side” of the issue, ignoring or reading into what they say rather than seeking to actually hear them. This is what lets someone see a comment about the Israeli right to self-defense as a call for genocide, or support of aparthied. This is also what lets someone see the calls of extremists for the death of all Jews as representative of all Palestinians, or even of all Muslims. Both sides of the issue are able to completely demonize each other with the same deliberately inflammatory claims: terms like “genocide” and “holocaust” may or may not reflect what’s actually going on there, but they serve the function of equating their opponents with Nazis. It’s Godwin’s Law, without actually saying “Hitler”. Why are people okay with implying that people they don’t know, either here in North America or on the other side of the world, are Nazis based on simply holding another opinion about the most complicated conflict in history? Because of the GIFT, or Online Disinhibition Effect.

A fascinating thing about the internet is that it is lawless, but that it is also self-policing. The internet is a web of smaller communities, and each one of those communities has social rules, written and/or unwritten, and it polices itself primarily through some members shaming others. In a healthy internet community, all it takes is for a senior member of the community (usually signified by the number of starts under their name on the forums) to tell someone that their conduct in the community is inappropriate. Sometimes moderators ban repeat offenders, but that doesn’t usually have a very strong effect. Far more powerful is when senior members of the community will point to delinquent behaviour, and pick it apart to show how childish and foolish it is. If this is done tactfully, it can actually be a feature of a relatively healthy community; those delinquent members of the community tend to change their behaviour in order to earn respect in the community, and in turn will break in the new delinquents, who either leave or grow up. So while I normally don’t approve of shaming others, it seems to be the most effective tool on the internet for bringing people under control within a community. It can actually control GIFT.

The trouble is, not every part of the internet is a community. Some parts are so big and unrelated to any particular group that they’re no-man’s-land, and the imposition of social rules and the reinforcement of shaming simply don’t apply. That’s where GIFT comes in most strongly. A news source is an island, under constant barrage by pirates and outlaws with no real hope of controlling the comments section. People take news stories from there back to their smaller web communities, or more controlled social spaces like Facebook, and sometimes they take the lawless GIFT-inspired rhetoric with them. Then, even a relatively controlled and healthy community can become inflamed by it. The complete lack of social control (i.e., shame) in no-man’s-land informs our opinions, and then we reinforce those opinions within our more controlled group through shaming.

Which is how a group founded on democratic principles and positive politics has its members shaming their president and demanding his resignation because he shared an opinion on the most complicated c0nflict in history and not everyone within the group agreed with him.

I can’t blame people for this. It’s a social-psychological phenomenon, we’re all victims of it, and we all perpetuate it. That said, we need to rise above it. We need to have values that override the GIFT, and primary among those values, we need to see people as people. Otherwise, the conflict in Gaza will consume the whole world. Our anonymous self-righteous demonization of those we disagree with won’t save us from each other, and it certainly won’t help Gaza.