by UCFORUM Subscriber Len Baglow
I would like every Christian to join the peace movement.
However, I first have a confession to make. I have only recently become a peace activist, and I am not a very good one. There are many people who have been peacemaking for years and I have simply smiled benignly and wished them well.
My concerns were elsewhere: the environment, refugees and asylum seekers, those struggling on social security payments. War and Peace, liked Tolstoy’s novel, seemed too big.
This changed in 2020 when I started having coffee with Michelle Fahy, an investigator into the arms industry. I became concerned about a world that I had previously known little about, and by the misinformation fed to ourselves and politicians.
One of the first things that I did was look up whether the Uniting Church had said anything about the arms industry. I found an excellent short document from 1988 which highlighted the dangers of increasing the Export of Arms and Other Defence Equipment. Yet since that time both LNP and Labor governments have supported building a substantial export arms industry in Australia. The Uniting Church has largely fallen silent on the issue.
All this might not have galvanized me to action by itself, but then came AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Suddenly, there was not just the problem of Australia producing lethal weapons of war and selling them for profit, but of Australia tying itself inextricably with the military/industrial complexes of two superpowers.
The centrepiece of this partnership is the supply of nuclear submarines to Australia. I have written elsewhere on the many serious problems of the AUKUS partnership. In this current paper I want to reflect more theologically.
The AUKUS partnership challenges Christians in Australia to ask the question, “In whom do we have faith?” This of course is an old question in the face of violence and the threat of violence.
Isaiah gives one type of answer when he said to the people of Israel,
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses,
Who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong,
But do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!
The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
And they will all perish together. (Isaiah 31: 1 and 3)
Currently there is much support in Australia for throwing our lot in with the Americans, and there is little opposition or criticism in the mainstream media. The general common-sense approach is that we are a small country and that we need big powerful allies. At the same time, our fears about a potential threat from China have been stoked. In many ways, this is similar to the fear in Isaiah’s time when Israel is caught between two competing superpowers, Egypt and Assyria.
Yet, Isaiah doesn’t adopt a common-sense approach. He gives a religious answer. You can see, the King’s military advisors shaking their head in scorn. Perhaps, they asked, “And how many chariots does your God have?”
Yet Isaiah knows that to rely on the force of Empire, is to tie oneself to the oppression of that empire. It is to become a slave of empire once again. Empires give nothing away for free; they demand a fee. That fee is often blood. Empires much prefer to have soldiers of vassal states die in battle, rather than their own. They prefer battles to be fought on foreign fields rather than their own.
But America is not like the ancient empires of Egypt or Assyria. If you believe this, you have not been paying attention, or perhaps only reading the Murdoch press and watching Fox news. What is even more dangerous in our situation is that America is an empire which is in decline. Its democracy is a mess; corruption and violence are rampant.
So, what does it mean in Australia today to look to the Holy One of Israel and consult the Lord?
The verse in the New Testament that stands out for me is:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9)
To be a peacemaker in the violent Roman occupied Israel at the time of Jesus was quite an extraordinary thing to be. It required a vision that saw realistically the current reality, as well as beyond it, to its divine possibilities. Then it required courage to act on that vision. No wonder that the next verse states:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:10)
So, what does it mean in our time to be a peacemaker? It is not a simple role.
In the first instance, it means to be creative. Peace is not just delivered to us like a takeaway meal; it must be made. Hence the “maker” part of the name. This is a paradox. Initially the making of peace is not a calming experience. First, we have to be disturbed. We have to notice the threat that is drawing us onto war or violence, as well as the injustice and exploitation that underlies the process. This upsets our equilibrium, our blithe assumption, that because we are comfortable, all is pretty right with the world.
Then when we start to act, we find that the problem of violence is not only without, but also within. Often our first reaction is to use violence to stop violence. We find the same violent impulses within ourselves, that we can see so destructively acted out in others. If we go down this violent path, we do not make peace, but only create the conditions for further violence.
Early in the process, we can also be overwhelmed. How can little me effectively oppose and transform the whole industrial/military complex. (Defeat the chariots, as I stand here unarmed, even without a slingshot.) The danger is that we fall into despair.
The answer is prayer. A special kind of prayer. What Isaiah calls “consulting the Lord”. It is not the prayer of “Please smite my enemies”, but the humble prayer of “What do you ask of me to help your loving possibilities unfold.” It is the prayer of contemplation. It is no accident that so many great peacemakers of our recent history have been people of prayer and contemplation: Martin Luther King, Abraham Heschel, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Jim Wallis, Dorothee Soelle. And of course, there are the Quakers who are profoundly committed to both openness in prayer and peacemaking.
In the last year, I have spent much more time with peace activists. Generally, they would not describe themselves as Christians or church goers, though many once were. Yet, strangely, they seem to have heard the holy one of Israel calling for peace more clearly than we in the churches have. Most are not just against war, but are actively seeking out peaceful alternatives. They are daring to believe in more loving and just alternatives. Also, they are not afraid to contemplate the widespread corruption and injustice that is leading us onto war. Further, they often feel in their very bodies the anguish of those in far off countries already subjected to the horror of war. It has been a humbling experience, that I as a Christian all my life have come to some of these realisations so late.
In this short article, I would encourage others to join in this adventure that scripture calls peacemaking. I would particularly urge leaders in the Church community to see peacemaking not as a peripheral activity, but something which is urgent for our times. However, every person can be a peacemaker. It is not necessary to stand in front of tanks. Only a few are called to such heroic actions. However, we are all called not to be complacent. We need to work at being informed, beyond the lazy propaganda of the mainstream media. And being better informed, our prayer is better informed, and we are more able to see the loving alternatives that God continually offers.
So how do we get involved? Of course, at one level this is always an individual question, depending on our individual discernment and personal and social circumstances. It might simply mean to be more open to what is happening around you and becoming better informed.
However, there is an event happening later in the month, that might be a good place to start. It is the IPAN Conference, Rally and Report Launch to be held in Canberra 22nd to 24th November. IPAN stands for the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network and is a network of organisations and individuals working for peace in Australia. Much of the event is online, so even if you are not in Canberra, you can still participate. The details can be found on IPAN’s website.
If you are a leader in your local church, I would also challenge you to think about what role your church could or should be playing in peace making. It will be too late when we find that Australia has drifted into war, due to the fearful, unfaithful and unwise decisions that we have made now.
Len Baglow, Facilitator, Against the Wind
Len Baglow: Former environmental activist and social policy advocate.
Len Hi. Thank you for your thoughtful and engaging piece (peace). It saddens me generally that the more fundamental voices from our churches are so often loud in focusing criticism at what they perceive the “sinful state of gender diversity” yet nary a comment about the evils of clergy child sexual abuse, poverty, political dishonesty, environmental issues a host of other social needs and of course the evils of war. Like you I’m only beginning to realise with so many potential flashpoints around the planet how a weapons industry is working overtime with a powerful hold on Governments all around the world. Many people across so many countries live with the constant threat or actual reality of war on their door step. Thank you again for reminding us how insidious the weapons industry is.