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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Mennonite Catholic who puts pacifism in action

Instead of thinking about how to justify war, theologian Gerald Schlabach says, the church should do everything it can to ensure that violence is a last resort.

Gerald Schlabach first started thinking about peace and violence in the mid-1980s. He and his wife worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in Nicaragua during a time of ongoing civil revolution. A member of the Mennonite church at the time, he was tasked with figuring out how the historically pacifist church should respond to the violence.

"This was a situation where a lot of Christians had said, 'Our backs are against the wall. We need to resist the tyranny of the Somoza dictatorship (known for their brutality and human rights violations) through violent revolution,'" he explains. "And here I am, 27 years old and tasked with speaking up for nonviolence."

The experience convinced Schlabach that nonviolence is always a worthwhile goal, even if violence seems neverending. There are always people willing to respond with violence but never enough peacemakers.
When asked if war is ever justified, Schlabach says, "I hate that question. If you start asking if there's ever any exceptional cases where violence is justified, then the exception starts to become the rule. We have to do less work on justifying the violence and more work on making sure we have the skills to make active nonviolence our first, second, and 15th resort."

In 2004 Schlabach joined the Catholic Church and became, as he describes it, a "Mennonite Catholic." Part of bridging these two identities for an ethicist meant promoting dialogue between the faiths' visions of peace and justice. The Roman Catholic tradition holds the idea of a "just war"--the belief that under some circumstances violence is justified. On the other hand, Mennonites are among a group of "historic peace churches" that believe violence is immoral, no matter the situation. Their ideas may seem opposed, but Schlabach hopes they will find some common ground in their shared practices.

What are the origins of just war theory?
There's a strong case to be made that the Christians in the first centuries were pacifists--people with a strong opposition to bloodshed of any kind and who were outside of the power structure. But that all changed in the fourth century under Constantine, and Christians have been debating the issue ever since.

One way to think about just war theory is as a kind of pastoral counseling. Christians were now in the room where the political decisions were being made, so they had to decide how to react. And just war theory was the result. The charitable interpretation is that Christians now had to determine how to give counsel to political leaders. 

These were people who had some level of commitment to their faith, but they weren't ideal Christians and, as government leaders, had a different set of moral demands placed upon them. People who are very skeptical of the just war theory would say that the church went to bed with the state and sold out on Jesus.

People started asking questions: Is it ever OK to use violence? Is it ever OK to kill? If so, under what circumstances? But when you start asking those questions, it becomes almost a zero-sum game. Any time you say, "Well, maybe under these exceptional circumstances . . ." you're already justifying war rather than nurturing the social conditions that cause peace. 
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