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Is God a Pacifist?

Exploring the Meaning of Peace, Nonviolence, and Pacifism in a Post 9/11 World
by Carter Phipps

“Once you start using violence, there is no way back,” the young peace protestor said to me, his eyes shining with conviction. “Bush is determined to drag us into war in Iraq, and we have to stop it.”

“I'm not anxious to go to war either,” I replied, but even as I said the words, I could hear the uncertainty in my voice. “I'm just not sure that peace is the answer.”

Maybe this was a mistake, I thought to myself. Driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont on a beautiful October day, I had come across this small antiwar demonstration in a local town square. Stopping for lunch, I had gotten embroiled in a discussion with the protestors on the hot political topic of the day: Iraq. It was thirteen months after 9/11, and with all indicators pointing to an imminent invasion, peace protests were popping up all over.

“Peace is the only answer,” the man responded, looking at me in slight disbelief. I had the feeling he could sense that I was genuinely uncertain about the issue, and perhaps he thought he could pull me back to the light. “If we use violence, how are we better than anyone else? Violence just feeds on itself. We have to find another way. Peace is the only answer,” he repeated.

I found it disconcerting to be on the other side of the demonstration. After all, a few years earlier, it might have been me saying those words. I had spent many years passionately supporting the peace movement. In fact, one of my early heroes had been the great twentieth-century spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti—a committed pacifist, who remained so even in the midst of WWII, a morally unambiguous war if ever there was one. But that was then and this was now.

For the first time, I noticed the sign that the protestor was carrying. Scrawled with magic marker on white cardboard was the phrase: God is on the side of peace. “Do you really think God is on the side of peace?” I asked. “Well, let me put it this way,” he said with a smile. “I'm quite sure that he's not on the side of war.”

As I headed back to the car, I reflected on the growing wave of protests. The demonstrators were certainly right that our president seemed quite intent upon war. As the administration's attention was slowly but inexorably shifting from the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was looking like a man in the crosshairs. And the Western world was having to come to terms with the fact that for the first time in a generation, the future was looking more dangerous than the past. The wreck of the World Trade Center was in the process of being made into a memorial, the anthrax killer was still at large, and on the radio, Bruce Springsteen's “The Rising” was paying musical tribute to the 9/11 firemen who had the faith and strength to walk “up the stairs, into the fire.” Fear and uncertainty still lingered in the air as the American populace adjusted to the new color-coded “threat levels” signifying the likelihood of imminent terrorist attacks. For a period of time, the barrage of warnings—some frightening, some bizarre—was fast and furious. Jogging by the local country lake in the morning, I remember having strange images of Al Qaeda scuba divers coming up out of the water, as per Ashcroft's recent suggestions, ready to launch massive chemical weapons assaults on local farmhouses.

As the initial unifying shock of 9/11 was beginning to wear off on the American polity, two very different visions of our role in the world were emerging in the fractures. One was held by the more conservative, or neoconservative, faction—a majority if you believe the polls—who were gradually coming to accept a more interventionist role for America in the world. They believed in the use of military force and were ready and willing to head into the minefield of Middle East politics to rid the world of a dangerous dictator. In the name of democratic values, the argument went, we must be willing to break the back of tyranny in a part of the world that has often been the seedbed for terrorism. On this end of the spectrum were much of the traditional religious community—mainstream Christians, Evangelicals, American Baptists, conservative Jews, and so forth. And the implication of the position, whether stated directly by the Pat Robertsons of the world or simply suggested by Bush's “axis of evil” doctrine, was that God was on the side of America in this particular confrontation—that God was a supporter of freedom and of democracy and would like nothing more than to see the American eagle triumphant in the unfortunate but fundamentally good war on the globally destabilizing reality of rogue states and international terrorism.

On the other side of the fence was the more liberal cross-section of the country, including parts of the Democratic Party, which staunchly opposed the idea of war and roundly denounced the administration. This faction included the more liberal, ecumenical members of the mainstream religious community, and they were joined by a number of other spiritual or pseudo-spiritual movements, including American Buddhism, the self-help movement, the New Age, New Thought Christianity, et cetera. They took a resolutely pacifist stance, criticizing all talk of war. And the strong implication was unavoidable: that God, the spirit, or at least the moral and spiritual high ground, was in fact on their side—the side of pluralism and tolerance, the side of peace and reconciliation, the side that would not so easily kill in the name of a dubious American agenda to unilaterally order the world as we saw fit. “God is on the side of peace,” read the man's sign in Vermont.

God is on the side of peace. As I drove through the golden hills on that warm autumn day, the phrase tumbled around in my mind. Is God really on the side of peace? It did seem almost a truism. God and peace, in many people's minds, go together like America and apple pie. And it was hard to imagine God taking the side of war. Moreover, wasn't peace an essential message in the teachings of just about every religious tradition in history?

For me, peace had always been a word with powerful associations. More than a good idea, it was an orienting vision for life, a sort of mythic ideal that called out from the future with the promise of a better world to come, a new and more tolerant way to live on this small earth. Peace was a spiritual, philosophical, moral, and political statement all wrapped up into one, and I had spent much of my own life trying to make that statement in the best way I knew how. And I wasn't alone. Peace and nonviolence were ideals that captured the moral imagination of an entire generation as they sought to find a deeper humanity in a world where, for the first time, weapons of war could spell the end of life as we know it. But as I listened to the chanting of the antiwar protestors on that autumn afternoon, and as I watched the various peace movements rise up around the world in concern over American hubris, I couldn't help but notice that, for me at least, that special magic was gone. The moral power of the peace movement to move my soul and fire up my idealistic passion seemed distant. A parade of former activists from the Vietnam era came forward in the media to tell the world that, this time, the movement was going to grow and grow and overwhelm the country. Activist Ron Kovic, whose life was portrayed by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, came on CNN and said that this peace movement was going to be an “extraordinary crossroads” and a “turning point in American history,” the beginning of a nonviolent revolution. And I wondered: Could it really be true?

I was certainly sympathetic to the concerns of the peace movement. Indeed, it wasn't so much that peace seemed like a bad idea—just an inadequate one. Like it or not, we were living in a world full of conflict—not only conflicts of arms but of ideologies and worldviews. And like many Americans, I was concerned about how we were going to respond to the numerous pressure points that were threatening the fragile cohesion of our global society. We were living in a world where, despite the relative peace and comfort of the West, chaos and barbarity were just down the neighborhood block. The horror of ethnic cleansing was practically becoming a seasonal item on the news; kids were hanging body parts on their guns in Burundi; Pakistan was operating the Middle East department store for weapons of mass destruction; oil and water were growing more and more scarce; ecological catastrophes were looming; new diseases were threatening; and Al Qaeda sympathizers were plotting to overthrow or at least destabilize a nuclear-enabled Pakistani government. Against that backdrop, it seemed like a real leap of faith to imagine that all of our problems could be dealt with peacefully and nonviolently. But for many spiritually minded people who care about the state of the world, the ideals of peace and nonviolence are simply unimpeachable. They have a sort of sacred Teflon coating that repels all critical analysis of their pragmatic value. Why, I wondered. Is God a pacifist? Are higher human endeavors always oriented toward peace?

It's been almost two years since the autumn day when I stood in that Vermont town square, and in the intervening time, these issues have grown increasingly, even desperately, urgent. Indeed, as we stand at this crucial point in human history—thirty-five hundred years after Moses came down from the mountain with the simple commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” three thousand years after Krishna instructed Arjuna to fight and “conquer his evil-doing enemies,” twenty-five hundred years after Socrates drank the hemlock of the Athenian state refusing to fight or flee, two thousand years after the Romans crucified a Jewish rabbi who told his followers to “turn the other cheek,” nine hundred years after the Christians pillaged their way across the Middle East to take back the land for God, sixty years after an Indian lawyer brought the British Empire to its knees with no weapon but his own conscience, and just a few years after three thousand civilians were murdered in a carefully executed act of war on American soil conducted in the name of Islam—the question of if, when, why, and how to use violence is more confusing, more complex, and more important than ever.

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