Is violence ever right?

As I was driving home from school today, I was listening to “Kill ‘Em All,” the star single of which is, of course, “Seek and Destroy.” As often, it got me thinking about the nature of war, which is something I haven’t been able to stop pondering since I became a Christian.

The only new thought I had today was actually that I can somewhat understand “the terrorists” in, let’s just say Iraq, for now. I don’t mean that I support them, agree with their ideologies, or even find them entirely rational. What I mean is that I can empathize. Years ago, when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started, I believe it was my mother who said something like, “One man’s terrorists are another man’s freedom fighters.” This has always stuck with me. Were not the founders of the United States considered by the British to be something less illustrious than “freedom fighters,” or patriots or heroes? No, to the British, our founding fathers were committing treason and killing their own countrymen. The same idea applies to many groups, especially revolutionary groups, through history. I’m sure I am not the only one who has observed that American news often seems biased in favor of Israel, while most of us really know very little about the Palestinian people (or their politics, history, leaders, sufferings, etc.). So we say Hamas is a terrorist group — and they can certainly be perceived that way. But in this particular case, I don’t think it is that difficult to also see them as freedom fighters or something like that, considering the violence and cruelty Israel is responsible for. I even personally perceive a little of “the little guy,” when I think of Palestine, and yes, maybe even Hamas. Again, I do not say I support their violence, but I think I can understand why they have support. My point, I suppose, is that we call Israel an ally, a legitimate state, a world power, a professional military (even though they kill tons of civilians — but I digress), etc.; while we call their much less powerful neighbor a terrorist force, a territory, rebels — or we simply don’t talk about Palestine except to say there is violence there.

So what’s this get at? This gets at human beings “othering” each other, a social process that seems to me — and I admit I’m studying physics, not history or sociology — only to have been exacerbated by the concept of nationalism. Nationalism is a whole different beast. But anyway, othering is, it seems to me, one of the things we do as human beings that allows us to kill each other. Ask anyone on the street in America, and they will oppose murder. In fact, many of them will oppose it so much that they will consider the death penalty a suitable punishment … which is extremely illogical and ironic and ridiculous, in my opinion… But if you ask the same people who disdain murder (whether or not they support capital punishment, own a gun, etc.), they probably will say that war is generally okay. The same church folks who think a Christian shall not commit murder see no problem with a Christian becoming a soldier. I in no way mean to put down soldiers, but is there business not, in fact, by definition, murder? Their motivation is different for killing, sure. They just take orders, sure (although that is no defense when “war crimes” are committed). But isn’t the difference in our views of killing based mostly on who is getting killed? I assert that it is.

While I would like to explore more ideas further on othering, the concept of war crimes, etc., I will instead turn my attention to the heart of the matter, to me. That is: even though we differentiate murder in ordinary circumstances from the killing that goes on in war, does God? Is violence ever allowable in his eyes? Is pre-meditated violence, especially on a large scale, actually justifiable? To be perfectly honest, if I had never learned much about World War II, my first answer would be no. But the Nazis…

Isn’t there such a thing as fighting the good fight? Furthermore, the Bible itself is full of violence — full, in fact, in the old days, of God telling his people to go, pillage, plunder, and not leave anyone alive. God told his people to go do things that the international community (what is that anyway, the G8, I guess?) would abhor today. Encroaching on territory? Hello, Russia. Killing civilians, including women and children? And really it could be interpreted as either ethnic or religious “cleansing,” if you look at it that way.

I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to know the will of God. And I don’t accept that “the Bible just contradicts itself,” as so many anti-religious people say. I don’t believe there is any contradiction within God, but I do believe that his ways, thoughts, commands, and ethics are such that we humans do sometimes have a hard time, having the tendency as we do to try painting everything in black and white.

So while the words and life of Jesus teach me to hate violence, still I am not inclined to always hate it. May he forgive me if I am mistaken.

When I first joined the military, I totally believed in the justice of violence. To be perfectly honest, my blood rushed when I thought about the civilians and journalists who were killed simply engaging in non-violence work in the Middle East. I remember waking up to the news the day that bombs were going off in trains in London. I remember 9/11 of course, and other terrorist attacks in the West. I remember learning that the Taliban actually stoned people to death. I remember learning that girls couldn’t go to school in Afghanistan. I felt so angry and affronted that people I considered to be innocent were being murdered; and the reports and videos of torture, dismemberment, etc. that went along only increased my feelings. But it wasn’t totally emotional. I had a certain rationale in my head for why it was acceptable for me, a Christian, to be part of an organization that kills people — because it was killing those people, the people responsible for so much injustice and barbarism. Animals!

Now I am older, and I can only deny those old thoughts and feelings to an extent. Recently, some of my countrymen have been beheaded, and this horrifies me and angers me. But I also realize that my country has been responsible for no small amount of injustice and barbarism as well, both internationally and domestically, and both hundreds of years ago and today. I’m not saying we deserve to be murdered. Also, I realize that the desire for revenge makes me an animal. I realize that our constant quest for security, and all the billions and trillions of dollars spent on “defense” are, essentially, vanity; we cannot simply put other nations into submission.

We especially can’t put them into submission without becoming authoritarian international-law-breakers ourselves. I hate to say it, but could we have defeated Japan had we not used the atom bomb? (I think some historians would say yes, while others would say no, from what I have read.) But we did use it. It ended the war. Imperial Japan ceased to be imperial, and ceased to commit atrocities in its neighbors’ borders. So were we right to drop the bomb?

I’m not trying to answer specific questions like that. I am simply beginning to work through some of the justifications we make. The question is whether they are valid. I have always heard that pacifism is stupid. That’s how it is regarded in America (and elsewhere, I don’t know). The idea is why guns are so popular here. Being a pacifist does not promote peace, it just promotes your side dying and losing. But here’s where I think of Jesus, and even men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. In the case of the latter two, they did manage to change societies and promote peace and justice — with non-violence. In the case of our Lord, it is true that his non-violence led to his death… but that was necessary so that he could conquer death. He showed his true power by submitting to military “power.”

So why do we all see power in guns and missiles and nuclear capabilities? On a smaller scale, why do people riot? Great things have been and can be accomplished non-violently…

Oh, but it gets hairy. What about World War II? What about any war, perhaps? Can these things be solved non-violently? (Could they have been prevented by the promotion of peace?)

I think, and I pray, and it has been many years. I don’t want to hurt or kill anyone, and I don’t even want to contribute to it, which is something I think about regarding military service; as a Sailor, I never shot anyone, but I helped keep aircraft and ships functioning which carry and deliver all sorts of deadly missiles and bombs and things. I have been complicit in violence I don’t even know about.

So what? So I think, is it ever okay? Is it okay when the enemy is just bad enough? Or what if you really believe in your cause, but maybe you’re the bad guy? My husband’s great grandfathers, or perhaps great-great, I can’t remember, fought in World War I — the one for the French, and the other for the Germans. What was the difference between them? Did most of the Germans and Japanese in WWII even know about some of the atrocities their organizations were committing? Did simply being ignorant and believing that they were right justify them? This is why I hesitate to do violence, or support it, even when I feel it is supportable. I don’t know the answers to these questions, and of course I don’t know God’s views. I just know what I believe, and that is that really, we have the potential to all be brothers and sisters. Don’t we? There is no fundamental difference between a Jew and a Christian; a man and a woman; a black man and a white man. Without categorizing other people into convenient groups, some of which are supposedly good and some of which are supposedly bad, we can no more justify war than we can justify murder sprees in banks.

I know I am not really addressing the question of self-defense either, but if I did, it could be applied not only to individuals, but also to war. It’s the thinking behind preemptive strikes… where is the line? I strive to find one, but probably there isn’t one. Probably there are so many shades of gray I should see.

That’s enough. I have spent enough time blurting my thoughts into type. Hopefully I am not called upon any time soon to make an actual decision about violence.

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