Friday, 7 November 2014

On "Farewell to Mars"

When I interviewed Brian Zahnd earlier this year, he very kindly gave me an advance copy of “Farewell to Mars”, his book against violence and, especially, the militarization of the Christian message.

I read it with great interest. By nature I am not a tremendously peaceful person. Like so many others, I am attracted to violence be it in film or in real life and have had to curb my own violent impulses, with difficulty, over the years.

The radical call to peace is something that, as a Christian, I struggle with, but which I have hardly any intellectual doubts about.

Let me put this into a context that might be more understandable. As I read “Farewell to Mars”, hundreds of thousands of Christian Assyrians were being expelled from their ancestral homelands in Iraq, by a terrorist organization which I truly believe represents pure evil, in its ideology as well as its motivations and above all, its methods. Women were raped and sold as sex slaves, men were summarily executed, entire families expelled from their homes and forced to trek through the desert to relative safety.

The Yezidis had it even worse and as a reporter I covered, from the safety of my city, the horrendous suffering of the men and women starving and dying of thirst on mount Sinjar, to the point of throwing their children off cliffs so as not to watch them die in agony before their eyes.

Faced with this, my first and very powerful impulse was only one. Go and fight these evil men. If I did not have a wife and four young children to care for, I might have done just that. The second impulse was to celebrate the airstrikes that were finally ordered against the Islamic State. That they should all be killed.

It has been a constant struggle of the mind to look at the terrorists who are killing the innocent, beheading aid workers and raping teenage girls, and come to terms with the fact that these men too, are my brothers. That they too, are created in the image and the likeness of God. It has not been easy, and I confess that when I heard, just yesterday, that the first of about 12 Portuguese members of IS had been killed, my first thought was “great, only 11 more to go”.

So reading Zahnd’s book was a welcome challenge, one I knew would do me good. In “Farewell to Mars” he does the important work of deconstructing the militaristic version of Christianity which so easily glorifies war and violence, condemns the “enemy” and heaps praise and glory on those who are supposedly killing in our name.

Monument commemorating the Portuguese discoveries
Note the cross shaped sword
It is true that he is responding to a reality which is more familiar to American Evangelicals than to this Portuguese Catholic, but there is enough of that sort of thing in our history for me to relate. Just a few hundred meters from my house is an enormous monument commemorating the discoveries, part of which is a huge cross shaped sword, just like the one which makes him feel so uncomfortable in the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel.

Too easily, indeed, we forget that Christ calls on us to love our enemies, not to rejoice in their deaths. The fact that Zahnd reminds us of this by confessing to us that he too, at one point, led prayer services of war, makes the tone less preachy and more of a wake-up call.

So before I get on to things I am unsure of, or with which I disagree, let me say clearly that this book is a service to true Christianity, whether reformed or unreformed, and that its message is sorely needed today, as it always has been, even though it is likely to shock us and make us uncomfortable, as it did 2000 years ago. Thank you, Brian, for your effort and for the courage it takes to do what you did in “Farewell to Mars”.

But here is where I become the skeptic who you have no doubt met so often. I know you’ve met him, because you say so yourself here: “They begin to say what Jesus did not mean by ‘resist not an evildoer’ and when this teaching does not apply. (By the way, Hitler always shows up in these discussions).”

But, Brian, there is a reason Hitler always shows up in these discussions, as I am sure you know. He represents that type of absolute evil which many people believe can only be stopped with violence. And by many people I do not mean “hawks”, I mean many good, godly men and women. Men like Boehnhoffer. How can you mention Boenhoeffer in a book such as this without mentioning the fact that he was killed precisely because he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler?

But it doesn’t have to be Hitler. It doesn’t even have to be the Islamic State. We could boil it down to the typical example: There is a man with a knife in a playground, starting to stab children at random. You have the opportunity to kill him, what do you do?

Because I understand and relate to the idea that we should turn the other cheek, when it is our cheek to turn. But what do we do in the face of other’s unnecessary and pointless suffering at the hands of an evil we can stop, even if only at the cost of violence? I don’t think that case is quite so clear.

In “Amish Grace”, a book I know you are familiar with, as you quote from it in your previous book about forgiveness, there is the story, told to generations of Amish families, of a man who’s house was attacked by native Americans and who forbade his sons from fetching their hunting rifles to defend the family, even though that meant that he and his children would be killed. So I am not saying the answer is simple. There are good Christian men and women who would hesitate even in these situations to use force against evil. But I am not convinced this is the right thing to do.

Dietrich Bohnhoeffer
I believe Boehnhoffer was right to try and have Hitler killed. I believe it is right to bomb Islamic State positions in defense of the innocent and I think I would take the shot in the playground scenario. I hope I would not feel any satisfaction in the death even of the evil, but that does not mean it isn’t the right thing to do.

There are other examples in the book which I have trouble with. The criticism of the Vietnam war is a case in point. Let’s leave aside the possible other motivations for that or any other war. Let’s take it on face value, even if we are being naïve, that the war was indeed fought to try and spare the South Vietnamese the horrors of life under communism. You say the following:

“The argument was that we had to combat atheistic communism by stopping its spread in Southeast Asia … But how did that work out? Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. The war was lost. Vietnam became communist. Yet somehow the dominos did not fall. Soviet bloc communism ran out of steam and collapsed under its weight a couple of decades later. The fall of communism had more to do with prayer meetings in Poland than bombs dropped on Cambodia. War is, among other things, impatience”.

True. But Vietnam was not the whole story. Thousands died in Korea as well, and effectively managed to stop the advance of the communists across the whole peninsula. The result was not useless, there are millions of South Koreans now who live in freedom who would otherwise have had to live under the insane regime of Pyongyang. If it had taken an international intervention to stop communism from sweeping across Cambodia, would it not have been worth the price, rather than having had to bear the genocidal Khmer Rouge?

Which brings me back to the Islamic State. As we “speak”, a few hundred brave men and women are defending the city of Kobane from a group of fighters who will massacre them all if they fail. Is it not only right, but an obligation, to come the aid of these men and women, militarily? It certainly seems that way to me.

Please, I urge you, don’t get me wrong! I am not picking a fight over a book about peace! I repeat that I fully agree with almost all you have written and I too deplore the fact that Christianity is so often co-opted by those looking to justify their personal vendettas or economic interests. I too agree that there is no “other”, there is only “us”. What I regret, though, is the way you simply brush aside the “Hitler” argument without taking it on, I would, genuinely, like to know your answer.

Thank you for your book, for your thoughts and insight, and for being an apostle of peace which the World so badly needs. God bless you!

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