Reinvigorating the Discourse on Just War and Pacifism

**Originally published here; http://blog.sojo.net/blogs/2010/02/02/reinvigorating-discourse-just-war-and-pacifism

Before I went to Iraq with my friend and fellow God’s Politics contributor Shane Claiborne, I was trying to figure out how to take the lessons I would learn there back home. I felt certain (and now know) that the experience could be a small but powerful step toward improving our understanding of how to prevent any future indiscriminate uses of force similar to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Our individual experiences in Iraq were all profoundly personal, but we all expressed hope that the collective experience might have a greater significance upon our return. My own hopes were to help transform the course of the war itself or perhaps invigorate the Church’s discernment of war and peace. I began asking myself how something as uncalled for and illegitimate as the war on Iraq could be averted in the future.

In our representative form of government, it is hard to escape even a fraction of complicity for the damage we are causing across the world. As a former service member, I share the pain and guilt that often leads to suicide or severe depression, but I know that they will not have the last word. I know that the military as it exists today is a system that makes it difficult to do good and very easy to do evil. Michael Walzer is correct in the afterword of hisJust And Unjust Wars that the restraint of war is the foundation upon which peace is built.

Not long before departing for Iraq, I was invited to testify at the upcoming Truth Commission on Conscience in War(TCCW) in March of this year. In my own mind, this provided the framework in which I could utilize my experiences in a productive and transformative way. The TCCW is being organized by Faith Voices for the Common Good, The Ministry and Social Justice Commission of The Riverside ChurchSoldiers of ConscienceStarr King School for the Ministry, and Union Theological Seminary. The event will be held at the Riverside Church in New York City, the same church in which Martin Luther King shared his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” the inaugural address that formed Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. He gave the speech on April 4, 1967, and was killed exactly one year later.

The main thrust of the Commission will be to explore conscientious objection in the U.S. and how it may be improved to be more reflective of principles of Just War held by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths (as well as our own Constitution). Many prominent seminaries and divinity schools are actively supporting the TCCW by providing scholars as expert witnesses and nominating seminarians as commissioners to compile a final report by Martinmas, 2010 (a.k.a.Veterans Day).

More details are available on the Commission Web site, including information on the public hearing on March 21 at 4 p.m. If you’re in the area, you should seriously consider stopping by, religious leaders from across the country will be in attendance, as this event marks only the beginning of a major national discussion about military service and freedom of conscience as religious expression. I’ll be there too, we can do coffee.

The time is ripe to reinvigorate the discourse surrounding just war and pacifism. As we near the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, let’s not let the experience slip into history quietly and without critical analysis. Let’s learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes, but to do that we need to be able to tell the two apart.

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