(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)
As I write these words, the people of Libya are rising up against their dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. Following the example of the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Libyans seek to oust their oppressors by peaceful demonstrations that mobilize the majority of the populace. Similar demonstrations have already occurred with varying levels of success in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Morocco. Commentators have described the sweeping change racing across the Arab world as similar to 1989 when Eastern European countries overthrew their communist dictators. I wonder if a more apt comparison might be the peaceful revolutions in places like The Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea, where American-backed despots bowed to the inevitable will of their people for freedom.
Although it remains unclear whether dreams of freedom will be realized in North Africa and the Middle East, I don’t think it is premature for us to think about what these cries for freedom mean for our nation. Over nine years ago, the United States invaded Afghanistan and almost eight years ago, we invaded Iraq. Although I believe a stronger case can be made for the necessity of invading Afghanistan than Iraq, both wars have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths (according to the Pentagon: 5,800+ dead American service members, 32,000+ American service members wounded in action, and an unknown number of civilian dead and wounded—the AP puts civilian deaths in Iraq alone at 110,000+) and neither has resulted in a stable government that provides peace and security to its people. Despite assurances from so-called “Neo-conservatives” who believe the United States can and should use its military to overthrow dictators hostile to the interests of the U.S. (dictators who support us are just fine, thank you very much) and establish a free and democratic government, both Iraq and Afghanistan refute the idea that in this day and age peace can be made with war.
It is still too early to know for sure, but at least at this point, it seems possible that popular uprisings and peaceful demonstrations may bring about more democracy in the Middle East than the billions and billions of dollars spent by the United States military and the thousands of people killed. One method of revolution arises from the grass roots and bubbles up from within a society for the sake of freedom, while the other is imposed from the outside for the sake of strategic military interests and control of natural resources with a veneer of concern offered by American politicians of both parties for the freedom of ordinary people.
(Standing in contrast to the cynical words of politicians stands the work of so many ordinary American soldiers building relationships with and protecting ordinary civilians in spite of the untenable positions they have been placed in by their leaders.) Could it be that the will of ordinary people motivated by a desire for freedom, a will that refuses to sink to the level of violence used by their oppressors might be stronger than the greatest military forces in the world?
Anyone who reads the Gospels should not be surprised by the possibility that forces of violence are weaker than forces of peace and grace—after all, that’s what the resurrection is all about after all. The story of God conquering the powers of oppression through non-violence and peacemaking is either ignored by most realists or spiritualized and individualized so it has no real relevance in our violent world. Yet, the Gospels invite us to believe works of peace and grace do transform the world!
Political theory ancient and modern argues that history is shaped by the imposition of power from above, yet the Gospels offer the subversive idea of transformative power rising up from below. Within the last century, we need look no further than Gandhi’s movement in India, the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crowe South and the work of Mandela and Tutu in South Africa to see examples of movements that achieved lasting and stable change through peaceful means. At the same time, we have seen coups, wars and violent revolutions result in generations of violence around the world.
Meanwhile, back here in St. Joseph, we are a long way from the streets of Cairo and Tripoli and a long way from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., but we feel the effects of the philosophy of violence nonetheless. Everyone in a community like ours knows someone who is serving in the military and is or has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a shame that the bumper sticker slogan “Support Our Troops” has been equated with support for war. Wouldn’t a better way to support our men and women in military be to not ask them to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for a misguided ideology of violence?
Perhaps, we cannot shift the levers of power in the national capitals of the world, but we can make peace with peacemaking where God provides opportunities in our lives. We can resist the temptation to create enemies in order to define ourselves and by refusing to demonize the “other” whoever he or she may be—whether it is someone of a different ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or even the person who shares our background that we just don’t like. The way of violence (emotional or physical) always seems easier and more direct, yet it inevitably bogs us down in a quagmire of retribution and dehumanization. We may wonder what difference our small works of peace make in the face of recent world events, but the deeds of ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East—not to mention the Gospels—demonstrate to us the truth that peaceful acts by many ordinary people bubbling up from below can change the world.
Grace and Peace,