Faith: Dissenting voices from the past

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- One year after Sept. 11, we are beginning to hear strident voices of woe from 30 years ago -- dissenting voices from the pacifist wing of Christianity -- lamenting the ongoing war on terrorism more forcefully now than at any time during the last 12 months.

Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit of Vietnam-era renown, articulates his protests poetically. Stanley Hauerwas, recently celebrated by Time magazine as "contemporary theology's foremost intellectual provocateur," berates eloquently "the American desire to wage endless war."


The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, future Archbishop of Canterbury, bemoans the "squander" of the moral capital America has gained after Sept. 11: "From a situation where Muslim nations, even Iran, expressed shock and sympathy, we have come to a point where the shapelessness of the campaign leads Muslims to ask whether there is any agenda other than the humiliation of an Islamic population."


Williams then asks whether the destabilization of the Islamic world is really in the American national interest.

All this is to be found in a collection of 18 texts titled, "Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11." It will be released Sept. 11 in a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, a scholarly journal published by Duke University Press.

Its editors are Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia, who teaches literature at Duke. In their introduction, they assert that the current war on terrorism has "seen the capitulation of church and synagogue to the resurgence of American patriotism and nationalism."

This multi-pronged attack on the Bush administration's policies coincides with an assortment of censures and warnings from other clerical sources now that the war on terror seems set to evolve into an armed conflict with Iraq.

The Rev. Jim Winkler, the Washington-based General Secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, urged his co-religionists to "oppose this reckless measure," and opined that it was "inconceivable that Jesus Christ ... would support this proposed attack."

The Rev. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, whose theological tradition actually opposes clerical interference with the statesman's craft, warned in a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "This proposed strike will not in any way contribute to the establishment of a just peace in the Middle East. Rather, it will lead to the proliferation of hatred, suspicion and the desire for revenge."


Arguable, though, "Dissent from the Homeland" is destined to cause the greatest ire around the country. For it combines a problematic pacifist theology with positions that many will perceive as smugly anti-American, reminiscent of the Vietnam era.

The journal opens with the Berrigan poem reflecting on the fallen Twin Towers: "Why did they fall / what law / violated? Did Mammon mortise the money / that raised them high, Mammon / anchoring the towers in cloud, / highbrow neighbors of gated heaven and God?"

The mere fact that Lentricchia even bothers to reflect extensively on a statement made by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen -- a statement that disgusted his fellow Germans -- will cause equal anguish. He called the attack on the World Trade Center "the greatest work of art possible in the whole cosmos."

In the end, though, Hauerwas' essay, A Pacifist Response, will presumably trigger the most vigorous remonstrations -- for obvious reasons:

It mixes what comes across like a snobbish appraisal of his fellow Americans with an eloquently argued pacifist theology that nonetheless bucks the question of what practical solution he might have up his sleeve.

In a tone of the kind that three decades ago contributed to the public rejection of Vietnam veterans -- a rejection that has caused immense suffering to hundreds of thousands of these former soldiers -- Hauerwas contends:


-- "Americans ... are good at killing. We often fail to acknowledge how accomplished we are in the art of killing. Indeed, we, the American people, have become masters in the art of killing."

-- "America is always at her best when she is on permanent war footing... Everything -- civil liberties, due process, the protection of the law must be subordinated to the one great moral enterprise of winning the unending war against terrorism.

-- "At the heart of the American desire to wage endless war is the American fear of death. The American love of high-tech medicine is but the other side of the war against terrorism."

Hauerwas sees in the war on terrorism not a surgical operation aimed at extinguishing a mortal danger to the whole world, but an act of revenge -- "a revenge all the more unforgiving because we forgive those who flew the planes for making us acknowledge our vulnerability."

Hauerwas declares himself a pacifist of such doggedness that he "quit singing the 'Star-Spangled Banner.'"

He writes: "American imperialism, often celebrated as the new globalism, is a frightening power. It is frightening... because it is difficult to imagine alternatives.

"Pacifists are often challenged... with the question, 'Well, what alternative do you have to bombing Afghanistan?' Such a question assumes that pacifists must have an alternative foreign policy. My own response is that I do not have a foreign policy.


"I have something better -- a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill."

Of course this is precisely not the alternative because living safely in North Carolina, Hauerwas would presumably not be the one to die. Others would.

But he does not ignore this likelihood either. "Of course living a life of nonviolence may be harsh. Certainly you have to imagine, and perhaps even face, that you will have to watch the innocent suffer and even die for their convictions.

"But that is no different from those that claim to fight a just war. After all, the just warrior is committed to avoiding any direct attack on noncombatants, which might well mean that more people will die because the just warrior refuses to do an evil that a good may come."

All these are doubtless valid arguments in favor of a pacifist theology. But they also explain why this theology has never convinced more than fringe groups within Christianity.

For one thing, it is selfish. As the Rev. William Lazareth, another eminent theologian and former Lutheran bishop of New York, explains in an interview with United Press International. "The ideological pacifistic position is existentially parasitic because it is always predicated upon everyone else fighting wars, while you are getting the benefit of the security for non-participation."


Lazareth agrees with Hauerwas' repudiation of the concept of a "just war." He says, "No war is in principle righteous," meaning righteous before God. Instead, Lazareth affirms the classical Christian position of "justifiable warfare" as a last resort.

"Of course we do not have war as a Christian solution," explains Lazareth, "but war may be the least worst approach to justice when fought under the criteria of justifiable warfare in anticipation of a just peace."

This is why Luther compared the soldier's work with that of a surgeon, who cuts off a patient's limb in order to save the body.

"When I look at the office of a soldier," wrote Luther, "how he punishes and slays and creates so much misery, he seems to be engaged in a very unchristian work and one entirely contrary to Christian love. But when I consider how he protects the good... then it appears how precious and godly his work is."

Among the treasures earned and protected by military means there is one no pacifist can do without, as Lazareth reminds us: "The ideological pacifist can survive only with the free speech that has been won for him by soldiers fighting in former wars."


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