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Is it ever right to fight?


British soldier with French child

We have commented several times on this blog on the courage of British soldiers. In Heroes we include three soldiers, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill and Digby Tatham-Warter. This suggests that we believe that soldiers can do good and that war is sometimes justified. Two well-known Brits, both of them remarkable, have two very different ideas on this question.

Norman Kember lives in London and is a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team that was kidnapped by violent Islamists in Iraq in 2005. He speaks about peacemaking in today's Telegraph. Three of the four team members were held over 100 days before being released. The fourth man, American Quaker Tom Fox, was shot.

Mr Kember says,

Jesus's teaching offers us a revolutionary approach to dealing with conflict and wrong-doing. I believe, with Gandhi, that His way is non-violent resistance to evil. Martin Luther King followed that way, and so did the little-known Muslim Badshah Khan (1890-1988).
. . .I was asked recently in a radio interview if I considered myself lucky to be alive. No, I am not lucky. Our release was not due to luck but to the painstaking investigative work done by police and Foreign Office staff in Iraq and in Britain, and to the bravery of the Special Forces rescue team who, acting on that intelligence, were able to burst into our cell and release us.
. . .My experience did not change my belief in the need for and efficacy of non-violent solutions to conflict – and that belief has been cruelly reinforced as Iraq slides into chaos. The best way to peace is not to prepare for war, as the old saw has it, but to work for justice.

There is truth to this, but doesn't its truth depend on the specific event? If a city is being attacked, or if children are being killed and thrown into mass graves, I doubt we are going to turn away, and seek the root causes of injustice, which never justify murder in any case. We have to stop the killing first. Use of force will not be our first choice, but we may come to the use of force.

We note that Jesus said, “If a person smites thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.” But did Jesus also ask us to turn the cheek of a child to her murderer? Did he expect we would stand by rather than use force to avert violence to a child? Jesus has often been mistranslated as saying “Thou shalt not kill.” His actual words in New Testament Greek are “Thou shalt not murder,” an exact translation of the Mosaic law in Hebrew. Presumably he thought there was a difference.

Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) and their followers were wonderfully brave. However, they practiced civil disobedience in two countries – America and British India – that could respond positively to their civil disobedience, and eventually did. They did not attempt to practice civil disobedience in a totalitarian nation such as Nazi Germany, where they would have been murdered.

In “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” CS Lewis examines whether war is sometimes right and necessary. Lewis had fought in World War One. Afterwards, when he became a Christian, he thought hard about the morality of war. Addressing a pacifist society in 1940, he observed,

. . .Only liberal societies tolerate Pacifists. In the liberal society, the number of Pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not. If not, you have done nothing. If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate Pacifists to its totalitarian neighbour, who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no Pacifists.

Lewis' wide-ranging argument covers reason, morality, and history. We differ with some of his conclusions. One idea that does make sense is that we would have more effect if we tackled specific projects rather than vast generalities such as peace in our time. That is one thing we can be sure Jesus Christ taught – to love person by person, neighbour by neighbour. This personal love may be far more difficult and far more effective than an idealistic affection for "peace" or "justice". It doesn't preclude loving individual people in Iraq, either. There are wonderful stories about Brits and Americans who are there engaging in acts of compassion and love – for love is a verb.

To read more of Lewis' essay, see The Weight of Glory. We will let you know when Kember's book appears.