image of jerusalem 2013

Peace & Violence … At What Just Price?
Personal Reflections on a Theme

May   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

“As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us …
let us run with determination the race that lies before us, and let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end
- He 12: 1-2.

The Decade to Overcome Violence

A bold - though admittedly not innovative - idea germinated during the proceedings that took place at the VIII General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December 1998. The WCC was requested by its member churches to institute a programme that sought to overcome violence and counter the endemic disturbances across the world. On Sunday, 4 February 2001, this idea was finally unfolded as a hopeful reality in Berlin, Germany, under the banner of ‘The Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace 2001-2010’.

At a worship service that began in the bomb-scarred Gedochtniskirche Memorial Church and culminated in a candle-lit march from the Berlin House World Cultures to the Brandenburg Gate, the WCC Central Committee participants pledged to work together to end violence and build lasting peace with justice. The worshippers marched through the snow carrying small votive candles inside red, green or yellow cups - the colours chosen for the Decade to Overcome Violence. They went past the Reichstag building toward the Brandenburg Gate. [The famous gate at the site of the former Berlin Wall is being repaired and is covered by a gigantic canvas decorated with ghostly images of the structure]. They then placed their glowing candles in the shape of the red heart and the green and yellow globe of the logo chosen for the decade itself.

Celebrating the occasion, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches averred, “The Brandenburg Gate has already witnessed many processions of protest with torches and candles. It is a symbol that stands for many things - lust for power and violet division, as much as reunification and reconciliation.” Dr Konrad Raiser added, “For the WCC, the Decade journey must start with repentance for the violence that Christians and churches have tolerated or even justified. We are not yet the credible messengers of non-violence that the gospel calls us to be.”

At the opening session of the WCC Central Committee a few days earlier, however, HH Catholicos Aram I had used the same forum as Moderator to suggest a slightly different message. He had advocated that the Christian faith allows limited violence as a means of last resort when other ways of securing justice for a people will have failed. His remarks had generated much debate - and some controversy - amongst the church representatives. So much so that the issue was referred to a special WCC commission to study the theme of violence within the Christian faith.

Violence versus Non-violence? - He is our peace (Eph 2:14)

The launching of the Decade to Overcome Violence last week, and the somewhat incompatible statements that came out of that forum in relation to the role of violence in circumstances of injustice, speaks clearly as well to the situation in the Holy Land. Indeed, one debate within both Israeli and Palestinian societies - as much as across the whole world - has been about the ‘violence’ associated with the five-month Intifada in various parts of the Holy Land. In fact, if one were to follow the various analyses, reports and news, it becomes evident that different people label violence with different euphemistic tags.

But first, it is important to get the matter of definitions right. And here, I must wade through concepts related both to etymology and epistemology. It is clear in my own mind that when one refers to confrontations and disorderly behaviour - whether occurring in the Java islands, Northern Ireland, Timor, Palestine, Kashmir, Durban or elsewhere across the orb - any physical or psychological action or force that kills, maims, injures, abuses, destroys or pillories is ‘violence’. But then, having defined violence literally and adapted its parameters to the discourse, I embark upon the more subtle area of nuances and query whether such violence assumes a different definition - or justification - when it is a reaction to fetid cases of injustice. Any academician or practitioner in this field can write volumes about the dichotomy inherent to this definition.

In the case of the Palestinian Intifada of al-Aqsa - which erupted as a reaction to the post-Oslo continued occupation of large masses of land, then gradually assumed a multi-faceted momentum of its own and has now entered a tit-for-tat phase of action and reaction between Palestinians and Israelis - one need only follow the news to realise how different people identify the Intifada in different ways. Some call it murderous ‘violence’, others level it down to ‘confrontations’ whilst some others elevate it to ‘freedom-fighting’ or ‘decolonisation’. Forgetting the etymology of the word itself, different people import their own subjective - nationalistic, political, juridical or contextual - perspectives into the rationale of their definitions.

Christian Perspectives

It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; the life of every man is in his power - (Job 12:10)

In the final analysis, is violence - any violence - permissible or not? Ought the Christian faith condone it or condemn it? Does violence become more acceptable when justice is not being secured in any other way? Can responsibility be imputed for an action that is diminished or even nullified by duress, fear or other psychological factors?

As in the case of the recent discussions that took place at the WCC forum in Germany, my own Christian lay understanding of violence depends as much on the biblical teachings themselves as on the persons applying them. And my interpretation here comes face-to-face with two seemingly antithetical positions. On the one hand, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke report that Jesus instructed his disciples to ‘love their enemies’ and to ‘do for others what they want others to do unto them’ (Mt 5:44[a], Mt 7:12[a], Lk 6:27 & Lk 6:35[a]). This seems rather docile by any standards! On the other hand, though, the Gospels also report that Jesus went into the Temple to drive out the merchants and overturn the tables of the moneychangers (Lk 19:45-48, Mk 11: 15-18, Mt 21:12-14 & Jn 2:14-17). The latter action is by far less compliant.

However, I believe that such examples - amongst others in the New Testament - are not necessarily irreconcilable! When Jesus asked his disciples to love their enemies, or to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39[b] & Lk 6:29) for that matter, he was epitomising in effect the excess of love toward others that he bore within him - and thereby one that ought to be within his followers too. Conversely, the episode of the moneychangers expressed Jesus’ ‘theological anger’, his revolt against those who did not understand the true identity of God as they defiled his Temple in the worst possible ways.

Let me endeavour to delve a wee bit deeper into my own Christian understanding of peace and non-violence.

By recalling the commandment “You shall not kill” (Mt 5:21), God asked for peace of heart. He denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral. Anger in this context is tantamount to a desire for revenge. Indeed, St Thomas Aquinas writes in his ‘Summa Theologica’, “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit”, but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice” (STh II-II, 158, 1-3). Therefore, if anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbour, it is gravely against charity and constitutes a mortal sin. God says, “Whoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement (Mt 5:22[a]). Deliberate hatred is also contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbour is a sin when one deliberately wishes him or her evil, or wilfully desires them grave harm. Again, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44-45).

Respect for, and development of, human life require peace. Spinoza - to use an anachronistic quotation in this context - once wrote what many others have often expressed: peace is not merely the absence of war. It is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained without safeguarding the lives of persons and respect for the dignity of persons and peoples. As St Augustine wrote, peace is “the tranquillity of order” (De civitate Dei {The City of God}, 19, 13, 1: PL 41, 640) but the prophet Isaiah had written way before him, “Because everyone will do what is right, there will be peace and security forever” (Is 32:17). In fact, earthly peace is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ. By the blood of his Cross, Jesus killed the pith of hostility (Eph 2:16 & Col 1:20-22). Yet, this cannot be a self-perpetuating blanket statement. Indeed, those who renounce violence and bloodshed as much as make use of those means of defence available to the weakest in order to safeguard human rights bear legitimate witness to the seriousness of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence - with its share of death and destruction. Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, domination arrogance, envy, distrust and pride are Farian elements that constantly threaten peace and cause wars. However, the prohibition of violence does not abrogate the right to render an unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm.

Contemporary Teachings & Disciples of Peace

Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be Called the Children of God - (Mt 5:9)

The teachings of Jesus have also been developed over the centuries by the institutional Church - and they have not always been entirely consistent. In the early Church, the doctrine of martyrdom - vastly dissimilar from the more political interpretations or contemporary adaptations of this term - was intimately linked with sainthood and involved human beings who underwent extreme suffering - violence - but did not renounce their faith. St Stephen, the protomartyr, is the first in a line of martyrs who withstood violence and died for their faith and beliefs.

At the end of the 4th century, St Augustine developed his theory of the ‘just war’ where he argued about instances of a ‘just’ versus ‘unjust’ war, and delved into issues of proportionality of response in war-like situations. These thoughts have become known as the ‘just war’ doctrine and are subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. In addition, the Church over its long history also approved the concept of regicide when the king - the ruler - was proven or deemed unjust.

Drawing nearer to our modern times, one can add that the path of non-violence has been inestimably strengthened with a list of people who sacrificed their lives for the sake of peace and non-violence. Such modern-day and martyred disciples of peace include the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. They are joined by peacemakers and proponents of non-violence in our midst today. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela are only the visible and high-profile examples of people dedicating their lives for the irenic quest of non-violence.

Just or Justified Violence?

They will hammer their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives - (Is 2:4)

No matter the explanations I attach to one blind or another of this issue, I must admit that I often find myself in a quandary. On the one hand, I have a serious problem with violence, any violence, that results in any death. Whether I look at the matter from a religious perspective or approach it from a moral standpoint, the idea of resorting to violence that ends up in fatalities and serious injuries is inimical to my own thinking and being. However, I am equally aware from the lessons of history that it is often well nigh impossible to combat virulent or lingering injustice without resorting to violent means. After all, is this not the only language that an oppressor understands? Is it not a matter of giving someone a taste of their own medicine?

On a more concrete and local level, would I therefore endorse violence so that Palestinians can retrieve their legitimate rights over their own land? Would I be so much of a purist in my attitude if I were not living in [the relative quietness of] Jerusalem but were in Gaza instead? What would be my reaction if I had lost all hope in the future, found myself jobless, had to support a family of six kids, and were penniless? Where would the truth lie then, and how would I justify injustice through sheer inaction? How do I deal with the fact that injustice is itself a deadly form of violence - albeit more psychological than physical - and would I be able to relativise injustice and violence dispassionately or clinically?

At such moments of uncertainty and fear, I often remind myself that Jesus assumed our humanity and tasted the ignominy of violence and defeat leading up to his own death. I also recall that Jesus - through the Mystery of the Incarnation - connected himself with our own imperfect humanity in order to create in us a greater capacity to ‘hear’ the other. But overstepping the faith-centred approach - which might arguably sound meek and ivory-towered to many today - I also remind myself that resisting all forms of violence need not only assume a physical dimension. Indeed, one can achieve as much - if not much more at times - by adopting alternative means of pacific resistance. Indeed, some people might opt to speak out about injustices in their own forum. Others might use the cyber-waves to write about them. And others might resist them without resulting in deaths. The answer - and therefore the solution - need not be uniform and monochromatic. It can vary and adapt itself as a function of the different beliefs and needs of different people.

In the final analysis, and whenever I am faced with difficult situations such as the recent spate of abhorrent killings, I remember the confident and uncompromising words of Revd Martin Luther King, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred: only love can do that.”

Therein lies my standpoint. Therein lies my dilemma. And therein lies my own unceasing struggle for personal growth.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   May


Print or download a copy of this article.


Google: Yahoo: MSN: