War and peace

In each edition of Pathways, we ask two Christians with different perspectives to explore a topical issue. As we were researching this edition, an attack on Iran was just one of the international conflicts hitting the headlines. We asked two experts to consider whether the road to peace can ever be through armed conflict.

Jonathan Newell

The Revd (Flt Lt) Jonathan Newell (Padre Jonny) is based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, the road to peace could be described as ‘the road less travelled’. Years of armed conflict have led to, at best, a fragile peace process. This is, however, the place I call home and the lens through which my worldviews have formed.

As a military chaplain, I am often forced to come to terms with the problematic relationship between conflict, reconciliation and peace.

“There are many different levels of peace and reconciliation.”

To understand peace and reconciliation, we first need to understand what conflict is, what it is that we are trying to reconcile, and why we need peace. This is not easy as there are numerous interpretations of what creates conflict: collision or disagreement; violence; emotions; incompatible goals; differences of opinion; social change; fear and insecurity. If there are many contributing factors and different levels of conflict then there are many different levels of peace and reconciliation.

Johan Galtung defines conflict using three components: contradiction – underlying issues creating a conflict situation attitude – affecting people’s perceptions and emotions behaviour – from non-violent threats or acts to disruptive physical attacks. For resolution, all three must be addressed.

Galtung talks about peace being positive or negative. The absence of violence does not necessarily make things better, but it is a good start. We have a negative peace in Northern Ireland. There are no ‘Troubles’, but people are still unhappy and living in a negative environment. The absence of direct violence does not always create a positive environment.

Peace can exist alongside repression, deprivation, exploitation and injustice. Negative peace is described simply as: ‘trying to put the fire out without having looked at the cause of the fire in the first place.’

Positive peace is achieved by overcoming a direct conflict situation, leading to a positive environment. Think of Rwanda in 1994. This peace serves the wider population through the restoration of relationships. Positive peace is achieved by peaceful means: legitimacy and justice. Peaceful means in the Rwandan context involved military action.

So, can the road to peace be through armed conflict?” I argue against a purist approach. Our reality is a violent world without armed conflicts. In that reality, however, peace is possible.

If peace is possible after ‘The Troubles’, after the genocide, then perhaps there is hope for the comparably smaller rifts that plague our relationships and communities. In conflict, we have a responsibility to assess our role in the peace process, to be a presence, and show that in our words and actions.

Peacebuilding does not merely require loving one another. It involves mutual acknowledgement of past suffering.

There are many different directions, different roads, different levels of conflict. We need to make sure that ‘the road to peace’ is one we all recognise, well-lit and well-travelled. ¶

The best road to peace is love: it is the Holy Spirit’s weapon in the face of danger or injustice.

Jesus lived in love for those who hated him, crucially when he prayed: “Father,
forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” In his abundant love he risked pain and death. His loving reaction to injustice opened the way for those who shouted “Crucify him” to have a change of heart. On the Day of Pentecost many of his accusers became his friends. There is joy in heaven when one sinner repents, and peace on earth.

“If your enemies are hungry feed them… overcome evil with good.”

Martin Luther King took risks in his human rights movement in Alabama. But it was founded on love. While he was in jail a bomb exploded at his home. His wife and two-month-old daughter were there. When released from prison, Luther King found a crowd wanting to march in vengeance.

But Luther King’s message for white people was: “Bomb our homes and threaten our children and, difficult as it is, we will still love you.” The crowd marched peacefully. Those who love their persecutors are blessed.

In modern-day Palestine, Christians speak of “seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy.” Many centuries earlier, in the time of Elisha, the King of Syria was attacking Israel. Elisha prayed for blindness to strike the invaders. He led them to his city, Samaria, where the King of Israel asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them?” But Elisha said: “Give them food and water and let them return to their master”. Syrian raiding parties did not invade Israel again.

This is a glimpse of God’s road to peace. Don’t exterminate enemies but help them to become friends. St Paul, who knew the road in Syria, wrote, “If your enemies are hungry feed them… overcome evil with good.”

Jesus took the initiative in challenging evildoers, and in helping those who suffered. This proactive love was the source of his road to Jerusalem and of his sending his friends out like lambs among wolves, ready to take up the cross as his followers. Jesus redeemed Israel without armed conflict.

Those who reject armed conflict are often asked “What would you do if you had a gun and someone you loved was being threatened?” My answer, as someone who easily gets angry, is that I don’t know. My first response would probably be to put myself in the line of danger.

The nearest I have come to such a situation was at a holiday camp when a fight was taking place in one of the chalets. I went in and spoke calmly to the youth with the knife and took it off him.

We may only walk an inch at a time on the road to peace but, on this road, let us follow Jesus. He has always been with us, is now, and will be in times of quiet and of conflict. ¶

Donald Reece

The Revd Donald Reece is an Anglican Pacifist Fellowship Counsellor.