Seeking peace amidst the turmoil: the terrible tragedy of warfare

As we draw nearer to the annual ANZAC Day commemorations, we prepare to remember those who have served in military forces in many theatres of war over the past decades. As I keep on hearing, now, this annual day is not a day to glorify the exploits of those who took part in those wars (which is how I experienced it, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s), but rather, a day to reflect on the cost, even the sacrifice, of those combatants.

Certainly, the mood of sober reflection on the cost of war, the damage that it does to those who have served, and also the courage that many showed under situations of great adversity and danger—this is what usually predominates in our time. (Although my liturgical sensitivities still cringe, every time a local RSL branch leads an ANZAC Day service using antiquated language and creakingly-obsolete theology via the “approved order of service” and the hymns that are taken straight from the vault of Antiques Roadshow.)

I recently read about a visit that Pope Francis made to Italy’s largest military cemetery. It was in 2014, but what the Pope said merits our consideration: “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”

The report indicated that the Pope believed, even back in 2014, that we were in the midst of a Third World War—a piecemeal war, but a world war, nevertheless. The current Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the sturdy resistance of the people of Ukraine, and the consequent involvement of NATO and western nations, could well be seen to be the most immediate sign of this war.

(See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-10/russia-invasion-ukraine-rumblings-world-war-three-decades-ago/100977334

If this is a world war, and if the West is heavily invested in this war, then will the West be able to gain victory? The bottom line, for me, is that war is never a winning strategy. There are no winners in warfare. Certainly, there appears to be winners—in the short term—as well as losers—also in the short term. But in the long term, everyone loses. There are no winners. War causes such pain, such turmoil, such hurt, such dislocation. “War is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.”

World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. The Armistice signed in late 1918 was supposed to ensure peace in Europe, and across the world. However, within two decades, the world was at war again. World War II was, in many ways, dealing with the consequences of the way that World War I was resolved, both on the battlefields, and in the negotiating rooms. The League of Nations became the United Nations, pursuing a programme of seeking peace across the world—a programme that still, today, is ongoing, and never-ending.

Can this current war be won? Should resources and personnel be devoted to “winning the war”? Certainly, Russia is showing every sign that it intends to “win the war”; whether they will, remains to be seen. And the Ukraine is valiantly demonstrating that it intends not to be the “loser” of the current war being waged in its territory; whether this will be the result, will depend on the tenacity of Ukrainian troops and the level of support (military, sanctions, trade embargoes, and the like) from NATO and others. Only time will tell who the short-term “winner” and “loser” will be.

It is true that going to war is seen by many as a legitimate way to resolve disputes and solve arguments, on a large scale. There have even been, through the ages, sophisticated arguments mounted to justify warfare. The Just War theory (originating in Ancient Greece, developed by St Augustine, and further developed by Thomas Aquinas) could presumably be used to support a western pushback to the current Russian invasion. Fighting evil is seen as essential. War is reckoned as the way to do this.

But, as the Pope said, “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.” We know that war has many consequences. It damages individuals, communities, societies, and nations. It has many more innocent victims than the casualty lists of enrolled personnel indicate. And there is abundant evidence that one war might appear to resolve one issue, but often will cause other complications which will lead to another war.

As I have noted, when we look at the outcome of the Armistice at the end of World War One, we can trace a direct sequence of events that led from World War One to World War Two. The same connections can be made, for instance, between colonisation (itself a process that involves warfare, as invasions require the subduing of Indigenous Peoples) and subsequent civil wars in the USA, Sri Lanka, and in various countries in Africa and Asia.

Sometimes, pitched battle warfare seems to be the only possible way forward. In the current situation, resisting the Russian invasion seems to be a vital strategy, especially as we see the pictures beamed from building reduced to rubble, lines of homeless people seeking to find refuge, hospitals that have been bombed but are seeking to continue to operate under difficulties. These pictures pull at our heartstrings, and validate our support for a direct western response to Russian aggression. A non-violent response seems harsh, uncaring, selfish, and doomed to failure.

Yet, overall, a commitment to peace is surely what we need to foster. An aversion to war is what we need to develop. As we follow the man from Nazareth who advocated turning the other cheek, praying for those who abuse you, and loving the enemy—the man who blessed those who work for peace—it would seem that a non-violent response is essential. And that is the ultimate goal.

To achieve that ultimate goal, a culture of respectful disagreement and honest negotiation, rather than pitched rhetoric and savage violence, is surely what we ought to aspire towards. However, that can’t suddenly be brought to bear in the current situation. I think the imperative to respond “in kind” is too strong to ignore. The justification for an aggressive western response is strong.

But over time, our leaders need to foster a much more constructive sense of relating in positive ways through diplomacy that is nurtured over time—rather than public posturing and media-oriented sound bites. That takes hard work and persistent commitment. Instead of rattling the sabres to grow in popularity during the current battle, why not commit to the military response that is currently required, but also seek to develop robust ways of developing respectful and mutually-constructive ways of operating.

That longer path of peace must surely be the direction that our governments must work for in the coming years. The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to seeking peace in local, national, and international spheres, stretching right back to a 1982 decision of the National Assembly, affirming that “the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means.” (82.57(1)(c))

See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace

We know that “war is madness; humanity needs to weep, and this is the time to weep.” Those papal words might inspire us to pause, reflect, weep—and pray. And as people of faith, the ultimate goal of peace (not just of “winning the war”, but of “bringing peace with justice”) must surely be the focus of our prayers—as we pray for those displaced, injured, or mourning in this current war, so too, we pray and work for peace in the world on the basis of justice.

So may it be.

*****

On civil war in the USA, see https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2020/03/a-war-for-settler-colonialism/

On civil war in Sri Lanka, see https://hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/

On civil wars in former colonies in Africa and Asia, see https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/asia-and-africa

Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), and the commitment to seek peace (2020)

Today, on this 75th anniversary, we remember past events … we mourn the lives lost and grieve for the lives damaged and distorted … and we hear the invitation to commit to seeking peace in our own times.

75 years ago, on Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 am, a nuclear weapon which had been given the ironic name “Little Boy” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb was dropped from an American plane, the Enola Gay.

Three days later, on Thursday August 9, 1945, at 11:01 am, another nuclear weapon was dropped from another American plane, the Bokscar, onto another Japanese city, Nagasaki.

The two bombings killed a number of people, variously estimated between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 146,000 people died in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people died in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

Despite the high military presence in Hiroshima, fewer than 10% of the casualties were military personnel. In Nagasaki, only 150 Japanese soldiers died on the day of the bombing. Over 90 percent of the doctors and 93 percent of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured—most had been in the downtown area which received the greatest damage.

Many people lived with the traumatic memory of those days, and grieved for relatives and friends who died. Many suffered terrible illness, physical disfigurement, or mental illness, for decades after those bombs were dropped. The personal and social impact was huge. Had this been considered before the bombs were dropped?

The United States was not solely responsible for these bombings. Under the Quebec Agreement, the US had to seek the consent of the United Kingdom for such an action. The Quebec Agreement was a secret agreement between these two nations, setting the terms for the coordinated development of the science and engineering related to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

The Quebec Agreement was signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt on 19 August 1943, in Quebec City, Canada. These bombings had been intentionally planned and deliberately prepared for over the course of the two years prior to August 1945.

Hiroshima was a supply and logistics base for the Japanese military. It was a logical target for American aggression, as it was a centre for communications center, a key shipping port, and an assembly area for Japanese troops. It contained manufacturing plants in which were made parts for planes, boats, bombs, rifles, and handguns.

Winston Churchill (right) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (centre) in Quebec
in 1943, hosted by the Canadian prime minister William King (left)

Nagasaki was one of the largest seaports in southern Japan, and was of great wartime importance because of its wide-ranging industrial activity. It had manufacturing plants which produced ships, military equipment, weapons, ammunition, and other war materials. The four largest companies in the city employed 90% of the workforce: Mitsubishi Shipyards, Electrical Shipyards, the Arms Plant, and the Steel and Arms Works.

The strategic logic in targeting these two cities is clear. The city of Kokura had been the primary target for the 9 August bombing, but clouds and smoke drifting in from the Allied bombing of nearby Yahata, resulting in much of the city Kokura being covered, obscuring the aiming point.

The bombings had the desired strategic effect within the war that was being waged; on 15 August Japan surrendered to the Allies, and on 2 September the Japanese government signed the formal instrument of surrender.

Was the terrible cost from these two bombings worth it? In terms of military strategy, undoubtedly so. In terms of the overall picture across the world, torn asunder by a vicious war, it may well be possible to see the benefits of ending the conflict, even in such a dramatic way.

But the personal and social impacts of these two bombings set up severe consequences for hundreds of thousands people over the ensuing decades. The social fabric of Japan was shredded. The military hubris of the Allied powers was nourished and encouraged.

And the political consequences of these two bombs was that nations continued to distrust each, and to relate to each other in antagonistic ways, fostering secrecy, promoting public dissembling and posturing, generating a game of threats and power plays across the ensuing decades. The US threatened many times to make use of the superior nuclear firepower that they claimed—although, thank goodness, they did not ever act on that. But the public threats and bluffs continued apace for years.

Perhaps the one enduring benefit form these tragic events was that the nations of the world, despite this public braggadocio, did become very cautious about how nuclear power was used. No similar nuclear bombing or other large scale nuclear weapon has been used in warfare since then, probably because the devastating impact of these bombs was registered around the world, and a firm commitment was made to avoid such large scale and widespread devastation.

What lessons can we take, 75 years later, from these events? We can seek ways to interrupt the course of injustice, without adopting the means of injustice that is being experienced. We can seek to combat evil without adopting the patterns of evil. We can nurture a response that is neither fight not flight, but rather, seeking reconciliation and justice in all we do.

As we do this, we follow the way of Jesus, the prophet of old who speaks words for the present, blessing those who live out the qualities that he most valued:

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are those who are hungering for righteousness.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. (Matt 5:3-12)

And as we follow this way, we seek to live as his followers proclaimed, pursuing what makes for peace (Rom 14:19; Heb 12:14; and see Gal 5:22; Eph 6:15; 1 Pet 3:11).

My colleague Chris Walker writes: ‘Let us then be peacemakers following the way of Jesus. Jesus himself rejected the way of the sword. At his arrest he told his disciples to put away their swords. He followed the way of suffering love and did not resort to violence. Even on the cross he cried out, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).’ (See https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/22/being-peacemakers/)

War causes such pain, such turmoil, such hurt, such dislocation. It has ongoing and enduring consequences. It might solve an immediate problem, but it inevitably sets up longer term dilemmas, difficulties, and discords. War can never bring deep, enduring peace.

To be sure, going to war is seen by many as a legitimate way to resolve disputes and solve arguments, on a large scale. There have even been, through the ages, sophisticated arguments mounted to justify warfare. Fighting evil is seen as essential. War is reckoned as the way to do this.

But war has many consequences. It damages individuals, communities, societies, and nations. It has many more innocent victims than the casualty lists of enrolled personnel indicate. And there is abundant evidence that one war might resolve one issue, but often will cause other complications which will lead to another war. Look at the outcome of the Armistice at the end of World War One: we can trace a direct sequence of events that led from World War One to World War Two.

Sometimes, pitched battle warfare seems to be the only possible way forward. Yet, overall, a commitment to peace is surely what we need to foster. An aversion to war is what we need to develop. A culture of respectful disagreement and honest negotiation, rather than pitched rhetoric and savage violence, is surely what we ought to aspire towards.

Can that be the commitment that we make, today, as we remember the tragedies of 75 years ago?

For this anniversary, the Uniting Church has joined with many other religious organisations, calling for a full nuclear weapons ban—for Australia to sign and ratify the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. See https://icanw.org.au/united-religious-call-for-australia-to-join-nuclear-ban/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/11/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/09/pondering-peace-worrying-about-war/

https://unitingforpeacewa.org/2018/11/28/perth-peacemaking-conference-statement/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/22/being-peacemakers/

On Peacemaking and the Uniting Church, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/blogs/item/download/508_0a66ead117d444388aac26cb064ff14c

Hello. Thank you. We are with you. We support you.

Hello.

Thank you.

Salaam.

Thank you for being here.

Simple words. Everyday words. But words which were filled with emotion and sated with meaning, in the context in which they were spoken.

Everyday people. Everyday words. People going about their normal, everyday business.

They have been to work. They have driven their cars, parked along the verge. They are walking along the street; walking with intent, heading with purpose, to the place of prayer.

Hello. Thank you. Everyday words. Accompanied by smiles. Sometimes, by handshakes. Or by a hand held to the heart; no words, just a signal, that this was appreciated. Deeply appreciated.

In a curving street on a gently-sloping hill in a Canberra suburb, twenty of us were gathered, standing on the footpath, greeting worshippers as they arrived for prayer.

We were Christians. They were Muslims. We were white. They were, mostly, Middle Eastern, or Southeast Asian. They were coming to pray. We, too, would gather to pray; but not today.

Our day of prayer is Sunday. Their day of prayer is Friday. Today is Friday. It is their day of prayer.

So this Friday, we stood outside the mosque, a silent witness of support and solidarity. Smiling, bowing, shaking hands, offering a greeting; not speaking further unless we were engaged in conversation; simply, standing in solidarity.

This is what it is, to be a human being. This is what it is, to relate to our fellow human beings. Hello. Thank you. You are welcome. You are us. We are with you. We support you.

Simple words, short phrases; but deep emotion, and profound meaning. Just in these simple acts and words of human interaction.

Some conversations were longer. We discussed the issues, the personalities. We could see, and hear, and feel, the emotion.

It could have been people like these. It could have been these people. Ordinary people. Coming from work. Gathering to pray. People of faith. Ordinary people, committed people, people who share their lives with us each and every day.

They serve us in shops. They answer our phone calls. They draft our legislation. They clean our homes. They install and service our utilities. They collect our fares and drive our taxis. They are everywhere. They are people of prayer. They are people of peace. They are us. We are them.

What happened a week ago in New Zealand, at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre … and what has happened in Quebec City, and Kembe in the Central African Republic, and the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minnesota, and in countless interpersonal interactions involving Muslims as victims … what has happened in far too many places, on far too many occasions, is a cause for deep distress.

We weep. We pray. And we stand, quietly, supportively, in solidarity.

Hello.

Thank you.

Salaam.

Thank you for being here.

Further reflections on the tragic events in Christchurch:

https://canberra.uca.org.au/uca-news/uca-statement-christchurch/

https://revdocgeek.com/2019/03/16/prayer-for-christchurch/

https://www.eternitynews.com.au/world/aussie-church-leaders-respond-to-christchurch-massacre/

https://www.eternitynews.com.au/world/dont-give-nz-terrorist-what-he-wants/

Perth Peacemaking Conference Statement

On the 10-11 November this year, more than 60 people gathered for the Perth Peacemaking Conference to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the end of WW1. The Conference included an Interfaith Forum (pictured) with representatives from a range of religious faiths.

After the Conference, members of the Ecumenical Social Justice Roundtable agreed to issue a Statement which emerges from the material presented and discussed at the Conference. You can read the Statement below.

Continue reading “Perth Peacemaking Conference Statement”

Let your gentleness be known to everyone

Let your gentleness be known to everyone (Philippians 4:5)

I have been thinking in recent days about modes of speaking; ways of proclaiming deeply-held beliefs, ways of engaging in constructively and fruitfully with people who hold different opinions from me. Life these days in the church—and life these days in the public arena, with political debate and social media interaction—seems always to be challenging me, in the way I think about ideas, and speak with other people about those ideas.

Continue reading “Let your gentleness be known to everyone”

The presence of God while in the hands of police

This time, one year ago, I was one of a number of church leaders who entered the Ellenbrook office of the Hon Christian Porter MP. We went to ask Mr Porter and the Federal Government to bring to Australia all people imprisoned in offshore processing centres. We took this action in solidarity with the more than 400 men on Manus Island who, at that time, were refusing to leave the ‘closed’ processing centre.

We went there in love, because we believe that Love Makes A Way.

This is the blog that I wrote for the UCA WA magazine, Revive, in reflection on the experiences of that day. (Note: the four years in detention has now stretched to five years in detention, with no end in sight … the injustice continues.)

Continue reading “The presence of God while in the hands of police”

Blessed are the peacemakers

Elizabeth and I attended The Perth Peacemaking Conference today, being held to mark the centenary of the end of World War One. We heard the Gospel proclaimed with clarity and passion by our colleague, Chris Walker, during the morning Eucharist in the Anglican Cathedral. We listened to representatives of a range of religious faiths express how their faith informs their commitment to peace; people from Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Indigenous Australian, Baha’i, and Christianity (Quaker, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church).

There was a good interchange of ideas. I jotted down some of the most striking and insightful comments made during the forum. Here’s my top twelve.
Continue reading “Blessed are the peacemakers”

Pondering peace, worrying about war

It’s 100 years, this weekend, since The Armistice was signed to end The War to End All Wars. In theory, that meant that war would end, and peace would prevail. It is an important moment, to recall that event, and to assess the consequences. Sadly, it has not been a century of peace; far from it.

So, this weekend, I am pondering peace, and worrying about war.

Continue reading “Pondering peace, worrying about war”