Opposing the Use of Force in Libya

Ross Douthat at The New York Times called the conflict in Libya a "very liberal intervention." Joe Carter at First Things, considering whether the word "war" is rightly applied to the situation, settled on "military intervention." Others simply call it a "conflict." For his part, Moammar Gaddafi promised that it would be a "long, drawn out war."

No matter what we call it, Christians should oppose the use of force in Libya.

Two thousand years ago, that claim would have been uncontroversial. In the early church, before Constantine wed Christianity to the Roman Empire, followers of Jesus Christ took seriously the crazy things he said about turning the other cheek, loving the enemy, and living and dying by the sword. They were hard teachings then, as now, but to the oppressed early church it was clear that the Kingdom Jesus came to establish could only be truly advanced by nonviolent means.

Whenever I tell someone that I am a Christian pacifist, there are several questions I always hear. I wrote about these in depth years ago at the Burnside Writers' Collective; they range from the highly personal: "What if someone attacked your loved one?" to the quasi-political exclamation: "Hitler!?!" But they all start from a place of power. That is, both the questioner and I have the luxury of power. We in the United States cannot hear the words of Jesus in the same way his disciples did. Is it any wonder that the most recent examples of active nonviolent resistance come from oppressed people—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and, most recently, the people of Egypt who overthrew Mubarak without bloodshed?

As a junior in college, four short months after 9/11, I had the opportunity to study abroad at Daystar University, a Christian college in Nairobi, Kenya. Although my thoughts on war and peace were still in formation, I knew that the language of revenge that erupted from the White House and the news media sounded nothing like Jesus' language of peace and justice.

With these thoughts swirling in my head, I enrolled at Daystar in "Christian Perspectives on War and Peace," taught by Ahmed Ali Haile, a Somali who had lost his right leg. Here was a man who had been shot by a rocket and was practically exiled from his home country, but who believed very deeply in the Gospel message of peace. As it turns out, Professor Haile was also a Mennonite and introduced me and my classmates—students from all over Africa, including several Sudanese refugees—to the writings of the Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder. It is difficult to see Jesus' call to lay down one's life for another as metaphorical in the presence of a man who did it for real. Likewise, it seemed impossible to justify a violent response to 9/11 while sitting in a classroom full of students who, in the face of genocide, still chose peace.

It has been nearly ten years since I first came to understand how I should respond to the clear call to pacifism in the Gospels. In many ways my perspective has deepened. I've come to more fully understand the way in which peace is a central teaching of the Gospel because it's a central part of the Kingdom to come. But, this does not make accepting or implementing it any easier. In fact, in the time since I graduated college in 2003, it has only grown more difficult.

For instance, I joined the crowds of people around the world who took to the streets on February 15, 2003, to oppose the impending war in Iraq. Opposing a unilateral attack on a country that had not provoked the United States, however, was far easier than answering what should be done in the face of a maniacal leader who showed no mercy in taking the lives of his own people.

In my moments of weakness, I want to join author and blogger Rachel Held Evans, who recently admitted to shouting at the television, "Can't we just take this Gadhafi clown out?" But this is precisely why I know that pacifism is a divine calling, as opposed to a personal disposition. The fact is, we probably can just take him out, and in the United States we know that using our power to do so is politically a viable solution. It's what we did in Iraq.

There are certainly plenty of earnest Christians who believe that in order to protect the people of Libya, this may be the best solution. We hear a lot of talk about the lesser of two evils. But I don't see any room in the Gospels for this position. It is from a position of power that one can make the decision between the lesser of two evils; people who are subject to power must choose between right and wrong.