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Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

War, Christian and secular morality – and nonviolence

By Rob Fairmichael

The ‘decade of centenaries’ in Ireland (from 1912 loyalist gun running through to the independence of the Irish Free State and Civil War in 1921-22) provides one long opportunity to reassess our approach to history, to violence, and to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, to what proved to be the main political divide (Pro- and Anti-Treaty) in the politics of the 26 counties for the whole of the twentieth century. The centenary of the First World War provides another opportunity to look at violence in a wider, and bloodier, context.

However, while thinking and talking is going on, what we tend to see is each ‘side’ excusing and supporting the nearest thing to their cause a century earlier. I suppose, as a supporter of nonviolence, I am as guilty of this as anyone else but I do so from a radical analysis and appraisal which is far from what I was inculcated into as a child and teenager.

Christianity is still the dominant belief system in Ireland, North and South, east and west, if now moderated by less direct involvement in churches by many people, by secularism, and by à la carte Catholicism and Protestantism, and also to a small degree by the presence of people of other faiths. It is interesting that good and bad examples of practice can come from within the same Christian denomination (see questions at the end of this article), and be happening at virtually the same time; e.g. an uncritical approach to the First World War and to a church’s engagement with it, along with critical thinking about what Christianity should really support.

INNATE has a poster quoting Mohandas Gandhi that “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.” There is a rather large problem for any Christian person or entity supporting violence and war in that the early Christian church, for the first couple of hundred years, did not support soldiers and armies. That changed by the time of Constantine and, boy, did it change.

The argument sometimes used is that early Christians were expecting the second coming of Christ and therefore did not engage in realpolitik and full engagement with the world as a result; is it seriously suggested that the idea Christians of whatever shape or denomination might be around longer than thought an argument for changing a fundamental Christian practice? Should all the rest of Christian morality also have been rethought? Richard McSorley SJ used the comparison of the development of the ‘just adultery theory’ to show the ridiculousness of a ‘just war theory’ (in his book “New Testament Basis of Peacemaking“). Of course he was using this to undermine the idea that there could be such a fundamental readjustment of Christian values.

Different aspects of Christian engagement in war need scrutinised. One is the very statist approach taken by churches; our state, right or wrong, ‘God with us’. This was a strong feature of the First World War and continues to be the case today through church chaplaincy services to soldiers and armies. The church protests that it is simply fulfilling its ‘pastoral’ responsibility but that is self-serving nonsense; it is clearly understood by the army concerned – and its generals – as support for the army and the particular war being fought. It is amazing that some people, looking back at the First World War, could be so uncritical of mass slaughter. It reminds me of the cartoon of ‘God in the clouds’ looking down on two opposing armies racing to battle with each other and saying “Now which lot did I choose?”.

In relation to the 1916 Rising, all those who support the methods used have a problem; how can you say the 1916 Rising was justified but the IRA and INLA campaigns in the Troubles in the North were not? The 1916 Rising was not seen as ‘justified’ at the time but it was ‘justified’ – and ‘sanctified’ – by basically both sides in the Free State – in subsequent years when the rebels came to power. Anyone can claim that their actions will be justified by future generations; and if history is written by their supporters then it certainly will be, but that proves nothing. To be even-handed, it does need to be pointed out that the loyalists were the first ‘side’ in the twentieth century (after the state) to arm themselves and rebelling against your own government to prove how loyal you are and preserve the status quo is a demonstration of the complexities of loyalist and unionist identity.

It is, however, possible to agree with the aims, and the dedication, of people who take up arms while disagreeing with their methods. Francis Sheehy Skeffington clearly came into this category in relation to the 1916 Rising, during which he was shot dead (see free downloadable INNATE poster on Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s views on nationalist support for violence) The 1916 Declaration’s “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” remains a vision which is worth remembering and celebrating – and challenging the Irish government to fulfil – virtually a hundred years later.

We can believe that people were mistaken in their methods but still feel that they were dedicated to their cause in an unselfish and even visionary way. Just as we can say that the men and women of the 1916 Rising were dedicated to their cause, and had a vision for a new beginning in Ireland, we can say that they chose violence because they felt they had no choice. We can be clear that this does not necessarily make it ‘right’. We can be clear too that at the time of the Rising there was no democratic mandate for such a military rebellion, either through the ballot box or popular support.

Many republicans and loyalists of the recent troubles in Northern Ireland also felt they had no choice but to take up arms. Coming from a viewpoint of support for nonviolent struggle, and the multitude of possibilities open in such struggle, we can say that armed struggle was actually unnecessary but that the protagonists concerned did not see that. This is where the role of nonviolent education is important; if people fail to see the relevance of nonviolence, and perhaps are even unaware of the possibilities associated with it, if they have not been persuaded that it is a better means of struggle than violence, then it remains an airy fairy concept which offers nothing.

While nonviolent conflict resolution in the shape of awareness of mediation has made strides in Ireland, wider awareness of the possibilities of nonviolent struggle for social and other forms of justice has not. So there is work to do to show that nonviolence is not either an easy or a ‘passive’ opt-out option but rather a dynamic and exciting way to build a new future which contains within itself the seeds of that future – rather than the seeds of hate and bitterness which are carried by violence.

There are still many people who don’t ‘get it’. There are loyalists in the North who continue to stay armed and to train. There are anti-settlement (usually called ‘dissident’) republicans who, against all the evidence, believe that their violence will destabilise Northern Ireland enough to set in train events which will lead towards a united Ireland. There is the British state, in its guise in Northern Ireland, who frequently favour armed intervention in different parts of the world and who have failed to learn the lessons of Northern Ireland in relation to how they handle Muslims and Muslim countries at home or abroad. And finally there is the Irish government who believe that the Republic and its army should cosy up to NATO and participate in ‘common’ EU ‘defence’.

If we believe that means and ends are one then nonviolence and nonviolent struggle is where we should be looking. This is compatible not only with Christianity but virtually any other belief system you care to mention, religious or secular.

There follows some questions which can be used for group discussion or individual reflection and they are grouped into questions for Christians, questions for people of any faith, and questions for humanists, secularists and atheists, as well as some for anyone. These can be used in a variety of ways but most usefully in small group discussion (say 6 – 8 people) at first to allow maximum participation. If the overall group is bigger than this, some of the ‘big’ questions can be taken back to the wider group for further discussion.

To get the overall feeling of a group or meeting on an issue (this is not ‘taking a decision’ – it is to get a sense of where people are at), straw polling can be used. For example, the facilitator can ask those who completely agree with a statement (and a proposition has to be made as a statement rather than an open question) to hold up 10 fingers, less fingers if they agree less, and a fist if they disagree completely.

- - - -

a. Questions for Christians on war and violence:

1) Between the formation of the church and 312 AD you can find no Christian writer approving of Christian participation in warfare – in fact all those who wrote on the subject disapproved of doing so. This was because of their understanding of Jesus’s teaching on enemy love and forgiveness. Is it now possible for Christians to “make peace with war” and if so, why?

2) Let’s think about the “lesser of two evils” approach to war – waging war may be necessary to prevent a great evil and injustice. How well does his argument stand up – is war not always the greater of two evils because of the inevitable consequences which flow from it? And is war always likely to degenerate into something considerably less noble than the original high aims?

3) Is it right that churches should “bless” war efforts by means of chaplaincy, memorials in churches to war dead and church services which commemorate battles and those fallen in war? On the other hand, should the church be more outspoken in support of non-violent means of confronting evil – being active in the public square (including social media), lobbying government, staging vigils, attending and staging street protests? Which sort of church shows the most faithfulness to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament, do you think?

[Questions taken from the ‘Speaking of Faith’ monthly meeting, Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast, November 2014].

b. Questions in an inter-faith or ‘any faith’ context:

4) What does your religion or religious tradition teach about violence and war? How much do you identify with this teaching? Are there different practices within your faith on these issues according to country and culture? Have things changed over time?

5) How do you understand ‘The Golden Rule’? See here or do a word search.

[If there are enough people of different faiths present, those from one faith tradition can discuss together before sharing with everyone else.]

c. Questions in a secular/humanist/atheist context:

6) Does humanism require active nonviolence and a rejection of military force? If humanism is about building a new future for humanity, free from fear and prejudice, is this compatible with military action? What is truly a moral choice on these issues?

7) How do you understand the links between violence, war and religion and between people of secular beliefs and war and violence?

d. General questions for all

8) Can violence be legitimised subsequent to the action?

9) Looking at Ireland in the twentieth century was any side morally right in the violence which it used? You can consider loyalists arming themselves from 1912, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence on all sides, the Civil War between pro- and anti-Treaty sides in the Free State, and the Troubles – including loyalists, republicans and the state(s). - - - - -

A couple of resources from INNATE on Christianity and violence ( contact ):

1. The “Christian Nonviolence: A study pack” issued by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and Pax Christi Belfast Branch in 1993 is available from INNATE as a PDF on request (the copy on the INNATE website is poor and needs replaced) or there are a few paper copies.

2. There is a workshop on ‘Nonviolence and Christian belief’ on the INNATE website

Copyright INNATE 2016