The next three questions from Matador’s “20 Questions for Every Spiritual Seeker” are related:
5. When is war justifiable?
6. How would God want us to respond to aggression and terrorism?
7. How does one obtain true peace?
I put off answering these questions for some time because I have long struggled with them, especially as someone with a pacifist Mennonite heritage married to the son of a WWII hero. I’ve also wondered about the related question of how dictators are allowed by their people to come into and stay in power, especially when elected. Hitler is the classic example, but unfortunately there are plenty of modern day examples.
The only way I’ve been able to make sense of the causes of war is to first loosely split them into two types: acts of provocation, and the relatively unavoidable reactions to those provocations. I recognize these aren’t clean splits, but I find them useful in thinking about their very different drivers. The reactive responses are relatively easy to understand in that they result from attack or from the perceived threat of hostilities. When your direct safety or well-being are sufficiently threatened, an aggressive response is at least understandable if not rational. The personality of the culture and its leader will still play a significant role in the response, as the vastly different responses of Churchill vs. Chamberlain demonstrated.
Why history’s aggressors start wars has always been far harder for me to understand. The short answer seems to be human fault, or simply, old-fashioned sin: all kinds of sins, including coveting, greed, idolatry, and plain old pride. And what is it when a leader whips up a frenzy to galvanize his people against someone or something other than him? Sin alone is too simple – there must be an additional X factor, because human flaws occur billions of times every day which don’t result in war. Power and ego seem to be necessary in the leader-instigator, but those egos seem to mask some deep disturbance, some warped set of values. The causes are likely many, but the results are the same: a dangerous leader who has little regard for others vs. himself.
But the final, and perhaps most important, ingredient for war is the follower. No leader can lead without followers. To some degree, we all agree to be led, though I appreciate that some have more choice than others. Those of us in democracies, especially, have an obligation to hold our leaders accountable. I haven’t consistently done that, even as a conscientious objector. It is too easy to disagree but go along anyway, thinking one voice can’t make a difference. But it can, at least when many of us lend our voices to the debate. I take much in my life for granted, and playing my part in our democracy is one of them. I believe that is our obligation—to play our part according to our conscience. Although I’m generally an optimist, I don’t hold much hope that we can ever achieve widespread, permanent peace. But I also don’t believe that absolves us of our obligation to try.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” –Jimi Hendrix