There exist a number of organisations claiming Islamic obedience who have taught their followers that the USA and its European allies have repeatedly carried out violent acts against Muslims; and that the only protection against them is a) killing their citizens whenever possible; and b) establishing an Islamic Caliphate where Muslims can live according to Islamic Law.
Last week one of these organisations claimed it had planned the killing and wounding of tourists on a beach in Tunisia.
In response the UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the UK should bomb the Syrian bases of this organisation.
This response shows how his thinking is contaminated with violence, because:
1. Even if such bombing were to be successful (and what would constitute success?) it would simply confirm the narrative taught by the organisation, gaining it more active recruits and passive supporters all over the world.
2. The chances of “success” when attacking an organisation that trains suicide fighters, does not require permanent bases, and exists in the midst of hundreds of competing militias, are vanishingly small.
3. Given the chaos in Syria the chances of “collateral damage”, that is, that our bombs will kill or maim civilian men, women and children, must be quite high.
You might think that these difficulties would dissuade any rational government from adding to the violence -indeed perhaps they may yet be dissuaded – but the PM’s words show that violence or the threat of it have become our default method of countering violence.
The easy availability of sophisticated arms together with the use of communication media for planning and propaganda
have made it possible for terrorist organisations to challenge great powers, yet this has not led to any serious re-examination by such powers of the use of exemplary violence as a means of containing aggression, which suggests that violence is part of our ideology, rather than a moral or rational choice of means. “Realism” demands we should use violence and those who disagree are considered as harmless idiots or increasingly, enemies of the state who must be subject to surveillance.
The tradition of Jesus is opposed to the legitimation of violence:
1. Although Jesus was given a title (Messiah) which had militaristic overtones, he treated the Roman invaders of his nation as human beings and on occasion helped them. He associated with collaborators (tax officials) and summoned one of them into his group of disciples.
2. He advocated peaceful responses to personal violence, care in the use of words which might lead to violence, patience under verbal abuse, cheerful obedience to commands designed to humiliate.
3. He commanded love for enemies.He did not explain in detail what behaviours would fulfil or break that commandment, but left it as an absolute requirement on his followers.
4. He practised what he preached, perhaps not quite perfectly – he overturned traders’ booths in the temple and may have threatened them with a whip- but I like the imperfection as it shows he wasn’t simply a naturally gentle man. On the big question as to whether his followers should use violence in pursuit of the “kingdom” or in his own defence, he acted in accordance with his teaching.
5. He knowingly challenged the religious/ political establishment of his nation by a publicly acted parable in which he parodied a Roman triumph while also fulfilling a prophecy about a prince of peace who comes riding a donkey. He was not suicidal, and did not seek his own death, but accepted it as a likely outcome of his public activity, and as a means of entrusting his cause to God and his Way to his followers.
6. For three centuries after his death and resurrection, his followers refused military service on principle, as a betrayal of Jesus’ Way.
Of course the Jesus tradition is also opposed to the causes of violence. He questioned tyranny by criticising the deification of the Roman Emperor, teaching that while he might own the coins which bore his image he could not own the human beings who bore God’s image. He questioned poverty by preaching God’s care to the poor and God’s justice to the rich, and his first followers made sure that nobody in their communities was left without the means of life. But Jesus’ prohibition of violence was not set aside until the causes of violence were eliminated (as if such a thing were possible!), but were obeyed from the start. They understood that peacefulness is the way to peace,
I have not tried to be original in my presentation of Jesus’ rejection of violence. Most scholars will agree with most of the above. It is the tradition which inspired many saints down the ages but was sidelined, through a variety of complex hypocrisies, by the mainstream churches, who treated pacifists as extremist.
My contention is that in this sense Jesus was extreme – extremely opposed to violence and extremely committed to peace. I hope that this site can be used to explore this aspect of the Jesus tradition, amongst others, and that it may lead to practical peace-making.