After Nine Years: Nonviolence in Iraq

After Nine Years: Nonviolence in Iraq March 19, 2012

Today marks 9 years since the US invasion of Iraq began. I wrote last week about how I was born again to nonviolence in Baghdad and Rutba. Yet, as much hope as I saw in those small acts of radical love, I’ve wrestled in prayer over these past nine years as I’ve watched the spiral of violence in Iraq continue–and, in many ways, worsen. What are we to do when nonviolence doesn’t seem to make a difference? What do we say to people who just want their lives back?

One of the most moving responses I got to last week’s post about a nonviolent response to Joseph Kony was a letter from an aid worker who has lived with his family in Iraq for the past several years. He was encouraged by the conversation about nonviolent alternatives and an imagination for peace in the way of Jesus. But he told me a story about putting his son to bed that night and trying to calm his fears. He told me he was crying as he wrote his email to me. He wanted to believe in the power of nonviolent love, but he also wondered how to answer his son when he asked, “Dad, would you shoot somebody for me?”

To quote his words…

I want to be non-violent. I want to believe that the moment of Islamic fundamentalists break into my home to kill my family the Creator and his creativity in me can find a non-violent way out. But it seems believing it is possible and preemptively choosing to never intervene by force on behalf of my wife and kids are two different things: ethically and theologically.

It’s a good challenge, and I’m grateful for it. I wanted to take this anniversary as an opportunity to venture a response.

Dear Brother in Iraq,

Thank you for writing. And thanks for the invitation to wrestle with you. You’ve highlighted the very point where a commitment to nonviolence hits us in the gut.

I think it’s important to notice that the hard thing is not refusing violence for self-defense, but rather refusing it for the defense of the vulnerable and weak–the four year old whom you love with every ounce of your being. It can sound noble to be willing to die for a great cause. But what do you do when they come for your kid? This is, of course, why so many people react so strongly against Joseph Kony. He’s been abducting kids for decades.

This is why the Christian argument for a “just war” has always been rooted in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Martin Luther (who put almost everything starkly) said a Christian should be both willing to die nonviolently if he were attacked personally and willing to kill if sent to fight in a just war or to act as executioner for the state. In his scenario, you need more than your gut to tell you when violence is justified. (This is the just war principle of legitimate authority.) But his point is the same: sometimes the most loving thing is to protect the weak by killing their enemy.

I believe in taking the just war tradition seriously. John Yoder’s work taught me that it is a tradition that emerged to restrain violence, not to justify it. But as morally compelling as Luther’s point is, it doesn’t seem to me that it matches up with the witness of Jesus. Some will always argue that Jesus resorted to violence in defense of the weak when he drove the money changers out of the temple. But street theater is a pretty puny show of force if that’s what you’re after. From the death of the Holy Innocents at his birth to the widespread oppression of his fellow Jews, Jesus responds to institutional violence with love of enemy and consistently teaches his followers to do the same.

Ever since Constantine, Christians have had to ask, “What might Jesus have done if he had been in power?” But this question seems to ignore that Jesus chose to live and die alongside the weak and vulnerable. He does not say to your son, “I will defend you.” He says, “I am here with you. Don’t worry. God is King of the Universe. All will be well.”

The more I wrestle with trying to live gospel nonviolence, the more I believe that it’s a way to proclaim with our lives that Jesus is Lord and God is King. Because it is true, I know it also has power to change things in this world. Gandhi and King, among many others, showed us that in the 20th century. But we can’t guarantee that nonviolence is going to make things work out alright.

It might get you killed (as it did Gandhi, King, and Jesus).

What’s worse, it might get your kids killed.

But we worship a God who knows the horror of watching his Son die. We know that the logic of the universe is death and resurrection. And we have the gift of stories–generations of people who’ve lived this Jesus Way, showing us its peculiar logic in both normal and extreme situations.

More than anything, I think it’s the memory of these living witnesses that keep our imaginations alive. Your context in Iraq reminded me of my friend Peggy who faced the threat of death for herself and her friends at the hands of extremists there in Iraq. If I could offer one word of hope, it’s this short telling of her and her husband’s story.


The peace of our Lord,


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